In arguing that the weapons, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, are part of Iran’s legitimate defense, Zarif declared that the Islamic Republic would never attack another country. Of course, such a claim depends upon the belief that none of Iran’s current activities in the broader Middle East constitute attacks upon other countries. And this is a perspective that would certainly be disputed by many of Iran’s adversaries.
Zarif’s comments also name-checked Saudi Arabia, indicating the continuation of a public relations war being waged by the two adversaries alongside their actual proxy war in Yemen. Zarif blamed the Saudis for rising sectarian tensions in the region and suggested that Iran would be open to reconciliation if Saudi policies changed.
However, this seeming advocacy for rapprochement was arguably undermined by comments made on the same day by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ foreign expeditionary Quds Force.
Suleimani described the Saudi government itself as “illegitimate” and claimed that it was constantly engaged in military action and threats not only against Iran but against the Islamic faith.
The Saudis became involved in the civil war in Yemen alongside a coalition of Arab countries in response to their perception that Iran had been supporting and possibly fighting alongside the Houthi rebellion since the beginning. Together with Iran’s support of Shiite militants in Syria and Iraq, this has been widely interpreted as an effort to contribute to Shiite dominance of regions where Iran wields significant influence.
But this view is something that Suleimani explicitly rejected, although he did so without direct reference to Iranian contributions to the various conflicts currently raging throughout the region. There is no indication, either from Suleimani or from Zarif, that those contributions are being reconsidered. Indeed, both men’s remarks may be aimed at placing blame on the Saudis for the ongoing conflicts in order to justify Iran’s continued involvement.
Whatever the motivations may be on the Iranian side, the rhetorical exchanges are sure to temper any international expectations of cooperation between the two traditional adversaries, whether over regional conflicts or global oil prices. In fact, RJR News reported on Tuesday that expectations on the latter point had already reached a notable low point.
There have been ongoing discussions since last month about the prospect of a multilateral agreement among OPEC member states and Russia to freeze oil output and stabilize the long-depressed market. But although Iran’s participation has been courted and at times declared to be a necessity, the Islamic Republic has put off the idea until such time as it increases its own oil output by between one third and one half, to four million barrels per day.
Tuesday’s reports indicate that this has led to already low prices falling by approximately three percent as chances diminish for reconciliation between oil giants Iran and Saudi Arabia. This raises the specter of economic warfare being waged alongside the military and public relations warfare already raging. And if this further depresses oil prices it will likely increase Iran’s need for foreign investment in order to continue the economic recovery that was arguably begun by the suspension of US-led sanctions following last summer’s nuclear deal.
Within US policy circles, the question of what Iran will do with greater access to foreign capital has always been a sticking point for the Obama administration’s more permissive policies. And these questions can only be expected to be re-asked, and more loudly, in the wake of the latest aggressive rhetoric directed by Tehran against familiar US allies.
These allies include not only the Saudis, but also Israel, which was the subject of threats by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officials last week after the country’s three illicit ballistic missile tests. Two of those missiles bore messages in Hebrew saying, “Israel must be wiped out.”
Naturally, this has raised concerns about Iran’s long term intentions for such advanced weaponry, just as the general nature of the tests has raised concerns about Iran’s potential disinterest in abiding by both the letter and the spirit of the July 14 nuclear agreement. A number of Western opponents of that deal are convinced that it provides inadequate guarantees of Iranian compliance. This has in turn led to a number of Republican candidates for the US presidency vowing that they will “tear up the deal” on their first day in office.
But a Wall Street Journal blog post argued on Tuesday that such plans are impractical, although it did not dispute the overall criticism of the agreement and the associated Obama administration policies toward Iran. The post suggested that cancelling the deal from the American side would give political leverage to Iran on the global stage, as well as eliminating whatever modest concessions the deal had secured regarding the Iranian nuclear program.
The post went on to argue that the US could, however, effectively antagonize the Islamic Republic into cancelling the agreement of its own accord, for instance by advocating for stronger sanctions on other aspects of Iran’s behavior, such as its human rights abuses, its intrusion into foreign conflicts, and its defiance of UN resolutions.
And in the wake of recent Iranian activities, US lawmakers and the yet-to-be-elected president may have both the incentive and the means for taking such measures. Just days after the illicit ballistic missile tests, CNN reported that an unnamed US official had warned of the possibility of Iran launching a satellite via a three-stage rocket, the first of its kind launched by the Islamic Republic. In theory, such advanced technology could greatly expand the threat posed by a potential future Iranian nuclear weapon.
The firing of such a rocket could be construed as the next in a line of “embarrassments” for the Obama administration, in the terminology of a brief opinion piece that was published on Tuesday by Asharq al-Awsat. The article suggested that the repeated violation of ballistic missile restrictions undermines Obama’s apparent notion that the Islamic Republic is a rational actor in the Middle East. And according to the article, this perception was further undermined by the recent US federal court ruling that held Iran partly accountable for the 9/11 terror attacks as a result of its support of Hezbollah and some affiliates of Al Qaeda.
Finally, Asharq al-Awsat notes that the January seizure of ten US sailors by IRGC naval forces was indicative of the fact that Iran is still committed to anti-Western rhetoric. In fact, Morning Call reported that the IRGC had claimed on Tuesday to have gained access to 13,000 pages worth of documents from electronic devices belonging to the ten sailors, who were held for only one day.
Previously, Iranian state media repeatedly broadcast pictures and video of the sailors in captivity – a move that earned the anger of US officials and was widely described as inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Subsequent to these broadcasts, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei awarded the country’s highest military honors to the IRGC officers involved in the capture of the two small US naval vessels.