On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had fired several sophisticated rockets, in another defiant gesture toward Western adversaries. The launches were part of three days of military exercises led by the IRGC and several were shown on state television to underscore the message of Iranian military strength. General Mohammad Pakpour, the head of the IRGC ground forces, issued a statement saying, “We are ready to give a crushing respond to any threat.”
The AP notes that this statement and the associated maneuvers came less than two weeks after the White House put Iran “on notice” over its most recent ballistic missile launch and its various destabilizing activities in the Middle East. While there have been no explicit threats of war from the Trump administration, the president has personally declared that nothing is off the table. The vague nature of the administration’s threats seems intended to keep the Islamic Republic guessing about the potential consequences of its actions.
In other words, the administration is interested in giving the impression that military action is a real possibility, even if that administration has no real intention of launching an invasion. Iranian statements referring to such things as a “crushing response” seem to suggest that such a possibility is recognized by the regime, although its declarations of readiness for war are nothing new.
White House officials may not be the only Western figures who are committed to giving the Islamic Republic due justification for these declarations. For example, Mint Press News reported on Tuesday that Alcee Hastings, a Democratic representative from the state of Florida, had sponsored a bill to give President Trump authorization to use military force against Iran. The article notes that Hastings was once considered a dove on such issues, but has adopted highly confrontational policy preferences with regard to Iran.
This is not to say that Hastings is actively pushing for war, and it is certainly possible that his bill is only intended to make Trump’s vague threat more credible. Mint Press speculates about his motives at length and is highly critical of such aggressive Iran policies. But it also acknowledges that Trump may not take the political risk of following through on a military threat. Meanwhile, other commentators, including associates of the Iranian opposition coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran, feel that follow-through on such a threat is not necessary, as economic sanctions and other pressures would be sufficient to constrain the IRGC and encourage a popular uprising by domestic opponents of the Iranian regime
Toward this end, Trump has made much more concrete threats on economic and diplomatic fronts, imposing sanctions on figures linked to the Iranian ballistic missile program and beginning a process that could lead to blacklisting the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. In this sense, Hastings’ move to authorize military force is simply indicative of the support that exists – even among Democrats and former “doves” – for a much stronger response to Iranian provocations than had been pursued under the previous administration.
This support was also highlighted on Monday by the Arab affairs magazine Majalla, via an interview with Elliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel has long been critical of the nuclear agreement, and his membership in the Democratic Party underscores the fact that the agreement was on weak footing even before President Trump took office.
In the interview, Engel explained that his problems with the deal have much to do with the prospect of Iran receiving tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, as well as new business dealings with the Western world, and channeling some of this capital into terrorist activities throughout the region and the world.
Even without taking direct aim at the JCPOA subsequent to taking office, this is the very thing that President Trump has sought to address by designating the IRGC as a terrorist group and cutting it off from access to American and European trade. The National Council of Resistance recommends isolating the IRGC completely and helping local populations to push it out of current spheres of influence including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
To further justify these recommendations, the NCRI has also prepared documents detailing the extent of IRGC involvement in regional terrorism, and has held a press conference at its Washington office to expose details of the IRGC terrorist and paramilitary training program.
But the effort to cut off the IRGC from the US and its allies will require clear buy-in from those allies, and this is something that the Trump administration still must struggle to achieve. As soon as nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic concluded, many Western figures rushed to explore trade agreements with Iranian business, many of which are linked to the regime or the IRGC. While Trump’s electoral victory in November was sufficient to halt some of these efforts, others have persisted, particularly among companies that do not have significant dealings with the US itself.
On one hand, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Air India Express had cancelled plans to begin scheduling flights to Tehran. The report indicates that this change was specifically a reaction to the Trump administration’s imposition of new sanctions. But on the other hand, the French energy giant Total has neither halted nor confirmed its plans for gas exploration in the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian Oil Ministry insists that it still expects the Total deal to be finalized in the next two months, but according to E&P, officials have also aggressively criticized European Union governments and businesses for slowing their investment plans until it becomes clear whether the US will continue to suspend relevant sanctions. Their hesitance and the Iranian response both indicate that there are numerous Western entities waiting to be courted by both the Iranians and the Americans before they determine whether their Iran policies will focus on gaining access to the country’s energy resources or economically punishing its support for terrorism.