By Mahmoud Hakamian
Since it became clear that US sanctions on the Islamic Republic would be returning as a result of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran has been steadily been stepping up its threatening and belligerent statements and actions as part of an effort to project strength in the face of rising pressure both at home and abroad. On July 31, new domestic protests emerged as further expressions of the Iranian people’s economic discontent, just days before the first of two packages of sanctions went back into effect. The second package, targeting Iran’s oil exports and banking sector, is set to be implemented at the beginning of November.
On Tuesday, the Iranian state media outlet Fars News Agency published a report that briefly detailed the regime’s intention to file legal challenges to the US, based in part on Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The effort will reportedly be spearheaded by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and will contribute to the narrative that the US action is illegal – a narrative that might be expected to assist other signatories in keeping the deal in effect despite the mounting pressure from the US. In actuality, though, participation in the JCPOA is voluntary for the seven nations that were initially involved in it, and Iranian officials had previously threatened on numerous occasions to walk away from it if they felt they were receiving insufficient benefit.
Although this makes the viability of a legal challenge unlikely to succeed, it does not preclude Iran from stalling for time and thus maintaining as much trade as possible with foreign powers, for as long as possible. Additionally, Iran’s legal strategy may be aimed at simply projecting an image of strength through formal channels, especially seeing as the challenges are not limited to the JCPOA withdrawal. Fars separated prospective lawsuits into three categories, the other two having to do with military contracts signed but not initiated between the two countries prior to the 1979 revolution, and Iranian challenges to existing claims and court rulings imposed on the Islamic Republic by the US.
Military contracts have already been the focus of suits and threats thereof, prompting substantial monetary settlements by the US, including the controversial 1.7 billion dollar settlement that coincided with the nuclear deal and a prisoner exchange in January 2016, at which point 400 million dollars in cash was flown directly to Iran by the Obama administration as a first installment that many critics characterized as a ransom. The payment was aggressively highlighted by Trump as a presidential candidate, and was used as part of his strategy to portray the nuclear deal as contributing to Iran’s financing of terrorism and illicit military buildups.
Under the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed alongside implementation of the JCPOA, Iran is “called upon” to avoid the development or testing of nuclear capable ballistic missiles, as well as being barred from importing most types of military equipment. But Tehran has routinely flouted such restrictions, reportedly testing over a dozen ballistic missiles since the nuclear deal went into effect. Although these tests stopped last year, they resumed again early this month in the context of naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, presumably signaling a return to brazen defiance of international expectations.
The regime’s defiant attitude has also been on display in recent days as its officials boasted about the supposed development of advanced domestic military hardware. On Monday, Reuters noted that Iran’s homemade weapons and military vehicles have made significant strides as the Islamic Republic has sought to compensate for its general lack of access to foreign-made goods. This observation was made in the context of reporting on Tehran’s claim to have installed on one of its warships an automated, anti-missile machine gun similar to the American Phalanx system.
Earlier in August, Iranian officials boasted of the supposed development of another advanced ballistic missile, this one capable of traveling over 800 miles and evading radar detection. And then, on Tuesday, the Associated Press detailed the unveiling of the Kowsar fighter jet, which President Hassan Rouhani specifically presented as part of an effort to deter an American attack. The White House has repeatedly insisted that it has no ambitions for regime change. Many Western observers of US strategy nonetheless speculate that the Trump administration is indeed hoping for regime change, but only insofar as it is encouraging domestic unrest by pro-democratic Resistance groups. But the Iranian regime’s public statements seemingly aspire to describe a constant foreign threat while also declaring its preparedness to meet that threat.
This was the apparent purpose of the IRGC naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, which showcased the “swarm tactics” that would supposedly be used to confront a larger and better equipped foreign military. But the fact remains that Iran’s own military is badly outdated, with most of its air force dating back to before the revolution. The Kowsar jet is unlikely to change this situation in the short term even if Tehran is not exaggerating about its capabilities. The same can be said of the country’s domestic development in general, about which various exaggerations and outright lies have been exposed over the years.
As such, experts general conclude that if Iran were to confront foreign adversaries, it would be by way of asymmetrical warfare, such as aquatic mines and terrorism. The latter threat was put on prominent display on Tuesday when it was reported that two Iranian nationals had been indicted in the US for spying on behalf of the Islamic Republic. Among the targets of this surveillance were activists for Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. It was previously revealed that the regime’s leadership had approved a plan to blow up the international gathering of the PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, on June 30, but the plot was foiled by European authorities.
The Washington Post identified the recently-indicted pair as Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar and Majid Ghorbani, and it quoted a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as saying that their activities are clear evidence of Iran’s ongoing commitment to targeting the United States. To this it might be added that Iran’s broader statements and activities embody a manifold approach to such targeting: one that relies on both legal and illicit means, as well as both traditional and asymmetrical threats, in order to project an image of strength in both political and military affairs, even as rising levels of pressure seem to be making the regime more vulnerable.