- Published: Thursday, 26 September 2019
On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly, where he took aim at Iran and sought broader international support for assertive policies that aim to secure a series of fundamental changes of behavior from the country’s theocratic regime.
Separately, Trump declared to the press that he believes his administration to be in a “very strong position” to push Tehran further toward those concessions. In recent days, he has used that same sentiment to affirm commitment to a strategy of “maximum pressure” through sanctions and diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime.
That strategy has been steadily developing since Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May of last year, citing its failure to constrain Iran’s regional aggression and ballistic missile development. Economic sanctions reached a new, unprecedented level last week after the White House announced that it was designating Iran’s national bank as a terrorist sponsor, thereby making international trade even more difficult for the Islamic Republic. The new measures were incited by missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure, which the US decisively attributed to Iran.
Despite the consistent appeasement policy of other signatories of the nuclear deal, Iran is now systematically violating its obligations and has done so on at least three occasions since June. Iranian nuclear facilities first exceeded limits on stockpiles of nuclear material, then began enriching uranium beyond the maximum level allowed under the deal. Finally, early this month, Iran’s nuclear authority ordered the installation of more centrifuges than are allowed, potentially paving the way to rapid enrichment toward weapons-grade uranium.
All of this has met with noteworthy criticism from the nations of Europe, especially the three that participated in the seven-party negotiations leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s deliberate nuclear provocations evidently also prompted a strengthening of some European positions. This was arguably made evident around the time of the third JCPOA violation.
Insofar as the nuclear violations had already begun pushing France, Britain, and Germany closer to the US strategy of maximum pressure, this progress may have accelerated in the wake of the September 14 missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. At first, the E3 nations were cautious about echoing American and Saudi accusations against Iran. But as more information emerged in subsequent days, this wariness waned until the relevant European leaders issued a joint statement against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly.
That statement declared that there was “no plausible explanation” for the damage suffered by Saudi Arabia, other than that a coordinated attack had been launched from Iran or under the Iranian government’s direction. The Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthi had initially tried to take responsibility for the attacks, but this effort was rejected by the Americans and Saudis on the basis of the advanced weaponry used and the southward trajectory of the attack.
The European statement reiterated British, French, and German adherence to the terms of the nuclear deal, but it also demanded supplementary negotiations connected to Iran’s more recent misbehavior. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently agreed that those negotiations should lead to Iranian commitments enhancing the security of the surrounding region and limiting a ballistic missile program that has grown under the direction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Notably, this demand aligns closely with that which has long been promoted by the Trump administration. The White House regards restrictions on Iran’s regional and missile activities as unacceptable omissions from the JCPOA, although the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined that agreement also called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all work on nuclear-capable missiles for eight years. That appeal was blatantly ignored by the IRGC, which argued that the provision was non-binding and did not refer to weapons that were only potential delivery systems for a nuclear warhead.
Now, the US appears to have newfound support for an effort to compel a change in this Iranian attitude. Of course, it remains to be seen how far that support will extend, and whether it will also cover other areas of US policy toward the Islamic Republic. Some elements of the European statement were vague, but it did underscore the need for shared responsibility in preserving stability and the security of international trade in the Middle East. This may suggest that Germany and France are reconsidering their prior refusal to join a US-led program for maritime security dubbed Operational Sentinel.
The United Kingdom has already signed onto that plan, which establishes intelligence sharing and encourages the naval forces of all participant countries to shadow commercial vessels bearing their own nation’s flags through the Strait of Hormuz, as needed. But formal British participation only began after the IRGC seized a British-flagged tanker called the Stena Impero as it was passing through the narrow, crucial waterway in mid-July.
Tehran ultimately claimed that the seizure was justified by its unsafe transit, but this explanation was rejected by the ship’s operator. The seizure was preceded by a number of threats from IRGC officers and other regime’s figures. Up until now, the Stena Impero remains in Iranian custody despite a public statement that it had been legally cleared for release.
But the current British government is unlikely to express interest in compensating Iran for the release of an unlawfully detained government. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif personally highlighted that fact on Monday when he complained that the previous British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had abandoned the prospect of connecting the issue of an imprisoned Iranian-British dual national to that of a decades-old debt owed to Iran by the UK.
Zarif asserted that Hunt “started to play tough because he wanted to become prime minister,” but in fact by rejecting a request for “ransom,” Hunt contributed to a trend that persists under Boris Johnson’s leadership. On Monday, Johnson declared that it is time for a “new deal” between Iran and its Western adversaries, although he clarified the following day that the JCPOA remains in force pending adjustments.