By Edward Carney
Escalating tensions between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran were prominently featured in global media on Monday, after White House National Security Advisor John Bolton issued a statement the prior evening, announcing the deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the waters of the Middle East. Details of the deployment were sparse, but Bolton identified the destination as the area of operations for the US Navy’s Central Command, which is based on Bahrain and is responsible for managing threats from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Bolton also indicated that the deployment was specifically intended as a warning against further escalatory actions by Iran, following an outpouring of rhetoric from hardline officials. US intelligence reportedly also acquired credible information that Iranian forces had been planning attacks on American assets in the region. Although neither Bolton nor any other White House official would go into detail about the nature of these threats, the notoriously hawkish National Security Advisor suggested that prospective attacks could come from Iran’s regular military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or foreign-based proxy groups such as Hezbollah.
“The United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said in his statement. However, in line with all previous statements on this matter by the Trump administration, Bolton reiterated that the US is not interested in war with the Islamic Republic, but is exclusively focused on using “maximum pressure” through economic and diplomatic means, to compel a change in the regime’s behavior and the end of its “malign activities.”
For its part, the Iranian regime has variously proclaimed that it has no intention to start conflict, and that its ongoing military buildup and ballistic missile development are purely defensive in nature. But that regime has been largely defined in recent years by major foreign policy disagreements between the pragmatic political faction associated with President Hassan Rouhani and the hardline faction led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC. And to the extent that this dispute has been resolved over the past couple of months, it has seemingly been resolved in favor of hardline policies.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced his intention to resign in late February, after he was excluded from a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, in which Khamenei was accompanied by Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s special foreign operations wing, the Quds Force. Although the resignation was quickly withdrawn, accompanying statements affirmed the Foreign Ministry’s role in prosecuting the hardline principles most closely associated with the IRGC. Zarif himself was identified therein as a loyal servant on the “front lines” of conflict with the West.
Accordingly, the Rouhani administration has reliably contributed to hardline rhetoric in many subsequent public statements. These include threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to any effort by the US to halt Iran’s oil exports. Last month, the White House announced that it would not be renewing sanctions waivers for any importers of Iranian oil. The pre-existing waivers for eight leading importers expired at the beginning of May.
Iranian threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz may have influenced Bolton’s decision to warn the regime against any potential attacks. But those particular threats are not the only public statements that could be interpreted as evidence of Tehran’s war-footing. Defense officials and particularly the IRGC have long insisted that they are prepared to stand up to the US in open combat. This was the apparent implication last week of the IRGC’s release of drone footage purporting to show a flyby of an American aircraft carrier Persian Gulf. However, the US Navy responded to that release by pointing out that the footage appeared to be “several years old” and that there currently is no aircraft carrier in that waterway.
That situation will only change once the Abraham Lincoln arrives, assuming the Persian Gulf is indeed its intended destination. However, even this change will only be a modest one, as the US has maintained an aircraft carrier presence in the region more or less consistently since the 1980s. Indeed, Admiral John Richardson, the chief of US naval operations, pointed out on Monday that the Lincoln’s deployment was previously planned.
Richardson subsequently clarified that the vessel was subject to “dynamic force deployment,” with its specific schedule and maneuvers being determined by ongoing changes to American defensive interests. As such, its immediate turn in the direction of Iran was indeed decided by Bolton and the US Defense Department. An unnamed official within that department also confirmed that there were “clear indications” of a possible attack by Iran and/or proxy forces upon US or US-allied targets both on land and at sea.
Still, the American response to those threats constitutes little more than a reminder of the pre-existing force in the region, which Iran remains ill-equipped to face head-on. Furthermore, Bolton’s announcement was arguably expected, given that the head of Central Command highlighted the US military’s awareness of Iranian provocations more than a week ahead of time.
On April 27, General Kenneth McKenzie told Sky News Arabia that the US would continue to reach out to partners in the region in order to effectively counter the expansion of Iranian influence while preventing further threats from the expansionist Islamic Republic. “I believe we’ll have the resources necessary to deter Iran from taking actions that will be dangerous,” he said of the combined deterrence from American and allied forces. “We will be able to respond effectively.”
Meanwhile, sanctions and other non-military pressures remain at the heart of US policy for dealing with the Iranian regime. As such, it was reported on Monday that President Donald Trump was planning to impose still more economic sanctions within the week, this time targeting sectors of the economy other than Iran’s all-important energy trade. In addition to halting oil purchase waivers last month, the administration also designated the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization, thereby interrupting global trade with various commercial entities that the hardline paramilitary controls either directly or indirectly.
Sources within the administration told the New York Post that the goal of forthcoming sanctions was to prevent the Islamic Republic from diversifying its economy in line with the “resistance” strategy outlined by Supreme Leader Khamenei and endorsed by President Rouhani. On Saturday, Rouhani delivered a speech in which he specifically urged the expansion of non-oil exports while also boasting of the country’s prospect for evading US sanctions and continuing to export petroleum at a high level. And separately, Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia insisted that Iran was “mobilizing all resources” to facilitate the sale of oil on the “grey market.”
Such claims are somewhat at odds with widespread reporting upon the compliance of US allies and partners with the still-growing roster of sanctions. Iranian officials’ defiance has variously been accompanied by retaliatory measures, but in many cases these have had little practical effect. In other cases, Tehran has merely threatened unspecified retaliation in hopes of presenting an image or strength or providing encouragement to political allies.
This trend appeared to continue on Monday when Iranian state media teased the announcement of “reciprocal actions” based on the American withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of that withdrawal, and as such it is expected that the latest US sanctions will be announced on that date. The Iranian response is expected to include the resumption of some nuclear activities, especially given that the US withdrew waivers on Friday which allowed the Islamic Republic to expand its nuclear power plant and exceed limits on low-enriched uranium.
But it is difficult to see what effect Iran’s retaliation might have in the current geopolitical climate other than to give the European signatories of the nuclear deal less incentive to remain within it while also bolstering global anxieties about Iran’s own provocations. On the other hand, such provocations may be a major emphasis of Iran’s foreign policy at the moment, insofar as they encourage defiance of Western interests by what some have called “coalitions of the sanctioned.”
This term was used by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday to describe the possible development of alliances committed to finding ways around the US financial system. The Times suggested that this could make persistent sanctions pressure a losing proposition for the US, “with hidden costs that outweigh” whatever benefits the Trump administration envisions. Of course, escalating regional tensions could be one aspect of those costs, especially if the US has no clear vision for how to achieve its regional goals without increasing the risk of international conflict.
But contrary to the Times’ article, many close observers of the administration’s strategy believe that there is a specific, if undisclosed vision behind the application of “maximum pressure.” President Trump and his foreign policy advisors have variously praised activist movements inside Iran that are opposed to the clerical regime. Organizations like the People’s Mojahedin Organization have publicly embraced Western sanctions on the understanding that the Iranian people’s economic discontent will lead to political protests like the nationwide uprising that defined the beginning of 2018.
On Sunday, EA Worldview reported that Iran’s economic crisis had reached a point at which the government was considering the rationing of goods – something not done since the 1980-88 war against Iraq. This comes at a time when exports have declined 60 percent and while the economy is projected to shrink six percent this year alone. To date, the Iranian regime appears to have no plan for addressing the situation other than boasting of its own strength and targeting the US military with threats that are generally viewed both as non-credible and as justification for further economic pressures.