This fact is arguably a testament to the perceived importance of the de-escalation mission. Yet the prospects for that mission, as well as the current tactical focus by Abe and others, were called into question even before he arrived.
The Associated Press quoted Abe as saying that he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had “bluntly discussed” the issue. This language may imply the use of harsh language in conversation between the two leaders, but it might also point to their mutual criticism of the White House for the policy of “maximum pressure,” which has widely been blamed for the current escalation.
That policy has been pursued through economic sanctions ever since the expiration of two, back-to-back 90-day waiting periods following the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018. But much more recently, maximum pressure has come to include military deterrence measures, including the deployment of an aircraft carrier group and four B-52 bombers to the area outside the Persian Gulf.
The latter gestures came in response to intelligence regarding threats by Iranian paramilitary naval forces and Iran’s regional proxy groups. Satellite imagery showed an increase in the smuggling of missiles off Iran’s coast, while officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were overheard directing their foreign assets to prepare for conflict.
Last week, General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command in the Middle East, affirmed the veracity of this intelligence but also claimed that the deployments had succeeded in prompting Iran to pull back somewhat. However, the withdrawal of naval forces does not appear to be matched by a draw-down of militant proxies, and a number of actual and attempted attacks have been attributed to those groups in recent weeks.
The latest of these came just hours before Abe’s visit to Tehran. In reporting on that visit, the AP noted that the Japanese Prime Minister’s warnings about the possibility for “accidental conflict” were muted by newfound recognition of the Iranian regime’s apparent efforts to intentionally court conflict, albeit conflict that relies on asymmetrical warfare tactics and is generally one step removed from the Islamic Republic’s regular military forces.
Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia, was quick to blame the regime for the missile attack on a Saudi airport that injured 26 people earlier on Wednesday. The same was true of two drone strikes last month, which targeted another airport and an oil pipeline. In all three cases, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Iran was widely credited with providing the military equipment necessary to carry them out.
In the most recent case, the Saudis went as far as reporting that not only did the relevant missile originate in Iran, but Iranian experts were on the ground at the launch site. Meanwhile, the internationally recognized government of Yemen reiterated its condemnation of Iran’s well-known backing of the Houthi militants. Information Minister Muammar al-Eryani highlighted an established Iranian policy of escalation in regional conflicts, adding, “The Iranian project in Yemen is to use the territory to implement its subversive agenda, including threatening the energy sources and corridors of international trade.”
In addition to the Houthi strikes on Saudi territory, there were four simultaneous acts of sabotage on tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May. According to White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, these were preceded by an unsuccessful attempt to attack a Saudi oil port. The tanker attacks, which left damage but no casualties, have not been attributed to a specific group, but a UAE investigation demonstrated that the perpetrators had state-backing, while Bolton reported that the sea mines involved in the attacks could be traced back to Iran.
All of this serves to undermine efforts by various world powers to attribute the current escalation to Iran and the US equally, and to suggest that war might arise without either party intending it. Naturally, this narrative has led to calls for direct talks aimed at resolving the tensions. Prominent among those making these calls are officials in the Arabian nation of Qatar, which is presently stuck on the geopolitical fence between Iran and its regional adversaries.
On Sunday, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani credited Japan and other nations with having spoken to both the US and Iran about the perceived need for de-escalation. But Thani said nothing about the effect of recent Iranian rhetoric on efforts to “bridge the gap and create a conversation.” While President Trump said on multiple occasions last month that he would eagerly meet with Iranian officials in absence of preconditions, Tehran has unequivocally ruled this out, saying instead that the US must resume participation in the nuclear deal in order to justify talks.
At the same time, various Iranian officials including so-called moderates like President Hassan Rouhani have been repeating threats of military reprisal if the US makes further provocative moves. Even during Abe’s visit, Rouhani threatened a “crushing” response to any American attack. Such threats are generally regarded as little more than bluster, given the stagnating effects of years-long sanctions on Iran’s military development. But the rhetoric alone may be enough to alter the international approach to promoting de-escalation, especially insofar as that rhetoric could be partially realized through further proxy attacks, even in absence of war.
The prospective shift in focus may not have been on display during Abe’s visit to Tehran, wherein he urged “more patience” on all sides. But it is arguably beginning to show in commentary from other governments, including those of Europe, that have generally been trying to appeal to the US and Iran in similar terms. For instance, Germany released a joint statement with the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, which specifically called upon Iran to avoid escalation.
The statement also repeated common talking points from Arab and American criticism of the Islamic Republic, as by stressing respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of fellow regional nations. Encouraging such non-interference is, notably, a major focus of the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure. And recent reports suggest that that policy may be working in ways that go beyond forcing Tehran to reconsider its naval presence. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Iran had lost approximately 10 billion dollars, or one-fifth of its typical annual petroleum revenue, since sanctions took effect in November. And this has evidently had an impact on the regime’s ability to continue financing its regional proxies.
The same report notes that Iran has been working to mitigate some of this effect by selling more petrochemical products to an expanded range of importers, and at prices below market rate. But the White House has already moved to counteract such effects, sanctioning the country’s largest petrochemical company for its alleged financing of the Revolutionary Guards. Additionally, a separate Reuters report noted that the administration has similarly moved to sanction an Iraqi company called South Wealth Resources for the same reason, thereby bringing the maximum pressure strategy close to targeting Iran’s foreign assets and allies directly.