By Edward Carney
On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump delivered the annual State of the Union Address. Although his remarks largely focused on domestic policy and border security, in sections that touched upon foreign policy he predictably reinforced his hardline posture regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran. The president once again boasted of his withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as referring to the Iranian regime as the “world’s leading state sponsor of terror” and a “radical regime” that does “bad, bad things.”
Trump’s speech came just one week before planned international conference in Warsaw, Poland, which will reportedly be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Although recent statements promoting the conference have emphasized an overall discussion of Middle Eastern issues, the State Department’s initial statements made no secret of the intention to use that even as an outlet for advocating a broadly assertive Iran strategy.
The White House has already adopted elements of such a strategy with the return of economic sanctions in the wake of withdrawal from the nuclear deal, but the nations of Europe remain largely committed to preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Toward that end, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have signaled that they are on the verge of implementing a special payment mechanism for trade with the Islamic Republic, which will ostensibly serve to evade US sanctions.
As Iran News Update has previously reported, details about this “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges,” or INSTEX, have shifted in recent weeks to imply a lesser commitment to sanctions-evasion on the part of the European Union. Over the short term, the system is expected to handle only trade in food and medicine – product categories that are already exempt from sanctions enforcement. The apparent downgrade lends itself to the conclusion that European policies toward Iran are more broadly in flux, possibly because of policymakers’ reactions to the escalating war of words between Tehran and Washington.
As the White House has been urging European businesses to avoid transactions with the Islamic Republic, officials in Tehran have generally been reacting with ever greater levels of provocation and defiance. This trend was evident in the wake of Trump’s State of the Union Address, which prompted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to deliver a message via Twitter condemning the US for its supposed support of “dictators, butchers, and extremists” in the Middle East.
Zarif also connected his remarks to ongoing celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, stating that the Islamic Republic is “commemorating 40 years of progress despite US pressure.”
Through other public outlets, Iranian officials have overwhelmingly sought to emphasize the country’s military buildup as the prime example of this “progress.” Fars News Agency, for instance, highlighted an exhibition dubbed “Achievements of the Islamic Revolution in 40 Years” and described it as featuring “advances in various industries.” But the accompanying video showed only military vehicles and missiles on public display.
Aspects of the Iranian military buildup have been a source of “grave concern” for the European Union, in the words of a statement issued by the international body on Monday.
That statement reiterated longstanding European objections to Iranian ballistic missile development, which has proceeded at full scale since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. The European criticisms refer to Iran’s rejection of a provision in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 that calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all work on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. In response to Monday’s statement, Tehran once again declared that it will accept no negotiation over such work.
On Wednesday, Business Insider touched upon the other ways in which Iran is pushing the limits of international restrictions on its behavior in the wake of the JCPOA’s implementation at the start of 2016. The regime’s celebration of its revolutionary anniversary has arguably amplified this trend, with military officials now declaring that they have made a priority of advancing the development of their arsenal of cruise missiles.
Toward that end, the regime recently unveiled a surface-to-surface missile called Hoveizeh, which is reportedly based on an illicitly procured Soviet cruise missile that was designed to launch from a strategic bomber and carry a nuclear warhead.
As the Business Insider report points out, it is reasonably likely that the Iranian copy of that weapon is also nuclear capable, yet this does not put Iran any further into violation of the Security Council resolution, because that resolution only refers specifically to ballistic missiles. A cruise missile presumably represents a lesser threat to Western interests, since the Iranians claim Hoveizeh only travels roughly 800 miles, even though the Kh-55 missile on which it is based was able to cover twice that distance.
On the other hand, the threat of such weapons would be amplified if Iranian naval vessels approached Western shores – something that regime authorities insist they are ready to do.
Rear Admiral Touraj Hassani Moqaddam, a deputy commander of the Iranian Navy, made a statement last month proclaiming the navy’s readiness to send a flotilla across the Atlantic Ocean over a five month period beginning at the start of the Iranian calendar year in March. Fellow deputy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari followed up on this claim in a press conference on Wednesday, saying that the regime considers itself to have a “right” to a presence in international waters, and that the navy is ready to make an Atlantic crossing as soon as it is ordered.
Many of the regime’s specific claims of military readiness are dismissed by international experts, and it is unlikely that Tehran would risk the international backlash of such a provocative gesture even if it was capable of following through on the promise. Still, the statements from Moqaddam and Sayyari reflect Iran’s contributions to the ongoing war of words, which in turn reflects competition between Iran and its Western adversaries in various areas of influence.
This competition was also highlighted by the EU statement that criticized Iran’s ballistic missile activities on Monday. As Reuters noted, the statement expressed concern over the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, as well as Iran’s support for proxies there, in Yemen, in Lebanon, and throughout the region. Such criticisms expose the disingenuous nature of Iran’s own criticism, on Wednesday, of US support for “dictators” and “extremists.”
Iran has been a steadfast ally of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad even in the wake of credible accusations of his repeated human rights violations, including the use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias fighting both for and against regional governments are organized under the banner of Shiite Islam and the hardline principles of the Iranian theocracy.
The intimate connection between these militant groups and the Iranian Revolution was underscored on Wednesday when Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, delivered a speech specifically highlighting the revolution’s anniversary and praising the Iranian supreme leader for the progress he has supposedly made in positioning Iran at the center of an “axis of resistance” to Western influence..
It has long been understood that Iran’s imperialist aims in the region are instrument to that “resistance.” The regime has been variously credited with pursuing the development of a “Shiite crescent” consisting of unbroken Iranian influence stretching to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. And on Tuesday, Newsweek suggested that Tehran had made significant progress toward that goal with the start of construction on a road that could eventually extend across Iraq to directly link Iran and Syria.
The report explained that for the time being, the road is slated to connect the Iranian city of Kermanshah to Biston and then to Homeyl, which is just a few miles from the Iraqi border. Newsweek also pointed out that the ground-breaking ceremony coincided with a commemoration of the regime’s 40-year anniversary, attended by Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami. Following upon his recent trip to Damascus, Esmali insisted that the road’s construction reflected high-level talks regarding “the issue of facilitating transit between the three countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.”
At the same time that these talks and these development projects are proceeding, Tehran is making efforts to push back against a Western presence that could complicate the regime’s regional ambitions. On Wednesday, The Hill reported that senior Iranian officials had acknowledged that Syria is one of their top foreign policy priorities, and had accordingly insisted upon the withdrawal of US forces.
“Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In December, President Trump indicated that he intended to pull American troops out because ISIL militants in Syria had been largely defeated. But many US policymakers including his own foreign policy advisors balked at the idea, noting that it would cede ground to Iran.
Tehran’s eager embrace of the prospective withdrawal will probably intensify this opposition, but it remains to be seen whether Trump himself will now reconsider his declared strategy. For the time being, there appears to be tension between his desire to reduce the overall US presence in the Middle East and his desire to confront and contain the Iranian regime. However, one thing seems certain: that the White House has no intention of accepting the offer put forward by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday.
“Our slogan is friendly relations with the whole world,” he said before adding that this would extend to the United States “if it repents... and apologizes for its previous interferences in Iran, and is prepared to accept the greatness and dignity of the nation of Iran and the great Islamic Revolution.”