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Port Access Plays Role in US-Iran Conflict for Regional Influence

By Edward Carney

On Wednesday, Agence France-Presse published a report that explained the ways in which Iran seems to be looking to the Chabahar Port, which it operates in partnership with India, as a lifeline for the evasion of escalating US sanctions and the preservation of Iran’s fledgling macro-economy. But the prospective impact of that effort is very much uncertain, especially in light of the ongoing back-and-forth in American enforcement and Iranian invasion, and in light of lingering questions about how quickly the US will move to exert “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic.

The AFP report explains that Chabahar is partially exempt from the sanctions that were re-imposed after the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The presence of exemptions is primarily due to the vital role that Chabahar plays in facilitating imports to and exports from Afghanistan, which is landlocked and remains a sphere of questionable American influence in the long-lasting aftermath of the 2001 US invasion. As such, Iran has reportedly invested one billion dollars in the development of the port, but it remains to be seen how quickly the returns on that investment will grow.

So far, the result has arguably been disappointing for the Iranian government. Officials have attempted to put a positive spin on the existing figures, but loadings at Chabahar still remain limited to roughly a quarter of the port’s capacity. This is no doubt attributable in large part to the vigorous enforcement of re-imposed US sanctions and the even more pro-active efforts by international businesses to withdraw from the Iranian market in anticipation of sanctions that may still be on their way.

The existing sanctions are by no means limited to the oil industry, but this has certainly been the focus because of Iran’s large-scale dependence on that resource. And the extent of the US restrictions on that industry are in some sense a predictor of its willingness to isolate other aspects of the Iranian economy, with global exemptions being defined only for humanitarian goods and medicines.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has certainly not been very restrained in urging the international community to sever ties with Iran. Hellenic Shipping News reports that the White House issued new warnings on Monday in the wake of reports that a handful of vessels had made illicit deliveries to Iran ally Syria and had participated in the transfer of oil off of Iranian tankers in an apparent effort to conceal the source of purchased goods. The relevant vessels were listed by name and the Treasury Department declared that repetition of sanctions-busting behavior could “trigger severe consequences.”

Such statements showcase the US government’s willingness to use pressure and intimidation, potentially even targeting its allies, as a means to prevent Iran from receiving significant economic benefits from partners in sanctions-evasion techniques, whether those techniques are legal or illegal. But other reports point to simultaneous efforts by the US and its allies to build consensus on the need to confront Iran, and more generally to expand regional influence in order to encourage compliance and bolster confidence in the reach of American enforcement.

Along those lines, Reuters reported on Monday that the US had reached an agreement with the Arabian nation of Oman, providing reliable American access to the ports of Duqm and Salalah. As well as underscoring American friendship with what has generally been considered an especially neutral country in the region, the deal can be expected to the US less reliant on the Strait of Hormuz, which passes between Iran and the United Arab Emirates and which Iran has repeatedly threatened to blockade in the event that the US attempts to obstruct Iranian oil exports.

Insofar as the new agreement “reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals,” according to the US embassy in Oman, it will presumably make Iran’s threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz even less credible than they already are. And this in turn may make Iran’s regional and international trading partners less willing to defy American pressure and gamble on the failure of the US to call Iran’s bluff.

Even so, the agreement with Oman is only one aspect of an ongoing competition for regional influence between Iran and the US. And that conflict has far more prominent and more strategically important battlegrounds. Among these, as reference above, is Afghanistan, where Iran has held high-level talks with the Taliban over the past two years. Though a Shiite theocracy itself, the Islamic Republic has a long history of partnering with Sunni militant groups like the Taliban, in the interest of exploiting mutual opposition to Western influence.

But a shared Shiite majority in Iran and Iraq has given the Iranian regime more straightforward mechanisms for expanding its influence there, just beyond its Western border. This was made apparent by the proliferation of Shiite paramilitary proxies during the war against ISIL. And this Iraqi phenomenon was mirrored even farther to the west in Syria, during the eight-year civil war in which ISIL was one of multiple combatants.

Iran’s commitment to expanding upon this influence has been highlighted in both Iranian and international media. And in both venues, it has often been highlighted with specific reference to countering American influence and undermining Western interests in the region. On Wednesday, Iran’s government-linked Fars News Agency reiterated Tehran’s commitment to playing a leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq, in the wake of the visit to the country by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier in March.

The Fars report quoted Iraj Masjedi, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, as saying, “Today, we are witnessing the closest relations between the two countries. This historic opportunity can be a turning point in the relations between the two countries.”
As to what that turning point would signify, many experts on regional affairs have described the Islamic Republic as striving to unite much of the world beneath its own banner. Indeed, Iranian officials have credited Tehran with already securing control over the capitals of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. But political elements within the affected countries are pushing back against this effort to expand Iranian control over the region, and some of those elements might still be exploited by the United States as it leads an international effort to contain Iran’s influence.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported upon Iran’s growing effort to “cement its influence in Syria,” but the report pointed to some Syrian politicians’ aversion to that effort, with one of them observing of Iran’s overall foreign policy goals, “The goal is to re-create the Persian empire.”

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