This trend began in earnest with the removal of Saddam Hussein government in Iraq, leading to the present situation of dominance by the Iran-allied Shiite majority there. It has continued and likely will continue in 2016 as a result of the wealth and legitimacy that the regime promises to receive from the policies of rapprochement that are currently predominant among Western governments.
But at a time when Iran is becoming increasingly involved in a range or regional conflicts including the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, many Western policymakers are pushing back against this rapprochement. As pointed out once again in The Tower on Wednesday, these critical voices are generally concerned that the nuclear deal has emboldened familiar bad behavior from Iran, while sending the message that major consequences will be slow in coming, if they will come at all.
The Tower recalled attention to an August editorial by former CIA Director David Petraeus, in which he argued that the Obama administration had been dealing with Iran as it would otherwise deal with nations like Japan and the Netherlands. This, according to Petraeus and other critics, is plainly unjustified in light of Iran’s long history of aggressive and destabilizing behavior and non-cooperation with Western nations.
Such critics arguments against rapprochement have been helped along by the persistence of Iranian belligerence and provocative activity in the wake of the nuclear agreement. Most recently, it was revealed that the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had test-fired a barrage of rockets within 1,500 yards of a US aircraft carrier and other Western vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.
The incident occurred only 23 minutes after the test-fire was announced via radio broadcast, according to the Associated Press. It led US Central Command spokesperson Commander Kyle Raines to declare, “Firing weapons so close to passing coalition ships and commercial traffic within an internationally recognized maritime traffic lane is unsafe, unprofessional and inconsistent with international maritime law.”
It is highly likely that Tehran is aware of this and that the IRGC specifically intended the incident as a threat and a symbol of defiance against the West at a time when the nuclear deal has led to expectations of closer relations. The seriousness of that threat is very much in doubt, as Western analysts tend to dismiss the notion that Iran could sink a US aircraft carrier, although the IRGC has repeatedly claimed to be capable of just that, and also of prevailing in open conflict with the US military.
In response to the news of the confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, an article in the National Interest took a measured approach to assessing that threat, acknowledging that Tehran’s particular claims are suspect but also pointing out that the use of sea mines could lead to the sinking of US vessels if the recent provocations lead to more deadly confrontation.
Iran has previously threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, and in April these threats became particularly salient when Iranian naval vessels shadowed a US-flagged cargo vessel and later seized a Marshall Islands-flagged one. Soon thereafter another confrontation with the US occurred when Iran attempted to break through a blockade of Yemen in order to deliver a suspected weapons shipment to Houthi rebels.
Earlier, while nuclear negotiations were still ongoing, Iranian naval forces conducted war games involving a mockup of a US aircraft carrier like that which witnessed the rocket test-fire last week. Iranian state media presented the drill as confirmation that the Iranian military could sink such a vessel in under a minute by swarming it with small ships and land-to-sea weapons. The National Interest reiterated the general dismissal of this propaganda, noting that such tactics have never been shown to be effective in actual combat, against moving targets. But there is no doubt about the provocative nature of such maneuvers, or the symbolic effect it can have for Iranian hardliners.
And such provocations have not only occurred at sea. In October and November, Iran drew the renewed ire of many critics of the nuclear deal when it conducted two test-launches of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. In addition to constituting a potential military threat, the tests underlined Iranian officials’ outright rejection of foreign restrictions on its ballistic missile work, including those restrictions that Iran is “called upon” to abide by for eight years under the terms of the resolutions governing the nuclear deal.
These and other incidences of anti-Western aggression have served to strengthen the case of those who feel that Iran is being given too much leniency. To date, the Obama administration has arguably undermined all efforts to counter this leniency, even reassuring Iran that it would help to circumvent new congressional rules that bar Iranian business travelers from receiving visa waivers.
Nevertheless, the US Treasury Department has continued to enforce existing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. And on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported upon one of the only signs that this enforcement may be expanding in response to the criticism brought on by Iran’s various recent provocations.
Congressional Republicans and many Democrats have been noticeably frustrated by the Obama administration’s apparent refusal to take serious measures against the October and November ballistic missile tests, or to even respond to congressional letters urging such action. But according to an unnamed source close to the Treasury’s sanctions enforcement wing, the department is current working toward the announcement of sanctions against companies known to have ties to Iran’s ballistic missile program.
If these reports prove accurate, it will arguably be one step back from the rapprochement policy that has been blamed for emboldening Iranian provocations. But it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration’s critics will regard those sanctions as truly sending the message that continued ballistic missile work will result in severe consequences. It is even less clear whether they will see that message as being broadened to include the Strait of Hormuz rocket fire and the general surge in anti-Western rhetoric that has been observed in recent months.