By Edward Carney
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday that the US would be granting major exceptions to the newly announced sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Two weeks earlier, President Donald Trump took the unprecedented step of designating the group, a paramilitary arm of the Iranian government, as a foreign terrorist organization.
Although such designation had been variously contemplated by earlier administrations, critics were quick to suggest that the associated sanctions and travel bans could make it difficult for American diplomats to negotiate or otherwise interact with foreign entities that have previously come under the influence of the IRGC.
The announcement of waivers was presumably a means of addressing these criticisms. As reported by the Associated Press, travel bans “will not apply to officials of foreign governments or businesses that have dealings with the elite military unit or its subsidiaries.” Still, the White House appears committed to its broader effort to break the IRGC’s hold on various aspects of Iran’s society and economics.
According to intelligence gathered by the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the Revolutionary Guards presently control well over half of the nation’s gross domestic product, with severely adverse effects on the distribution of resources in the Islamic Republic.
To whatever extent the newly announced sanctions impact this situation, it can be expected to interrupt the flow of Iranian capital into regional conflict zones and Shiite militant proxies. This in turn represents one aspect of what the Trump administration has described as a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime. But as the AP report notes, some Iran hawks in the US Congress have expressed frustration with the slow progress toward truly maximum pressure. These critics are likely to balk at the notion of allowing any exemptions to the IRGC blacklist.
On the other hand, some such critics may recognize the exemptions as having been counterbalanced ahead of time by the announcement that the US would no longer be granting waivers to purchasers of Iranian oil. When secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil exports came back into effect last November, eight nations that have traditionally relied on the resource were permitted to continue importing it without penalty, albeit at reduced levels.
Those waivers are scheduled to expire at the beginning of May, and it was widely anticipated that at least some of them would be extended for a further six months. However, the White House abruptly declared otherwise this week, prompting an increase in global oil prices but providing some relief to those Iran hawks who are eager to see as sharp a downturn as possible in the Iranian economy.
The exemptions to the IRGC sanctions arguably follow the same pattern as the earlier sanctions on oil exports. After withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Trump expressed no interest in granting waivers but promoted the maximum pressure strategy repeatedly during two back-to-back 90 day waiting periods. The waivers were not announced until very shortly before the secondary sanctions came back into force, at which point the administration apparently succumbed to political concerns regarding oil prices and the US government’s relationships with European partners who remain loyal to the nuclear deal.
But these concerns were not sufficient to compel the extension of the initial round of waivers. If this pattern holds in the wake of the IRGC sanctions, the latest waivers may also prove to be short-lived. As the AP noted, the Iranian regime’s greatest critics are already pushing for that outcome. And their argument for the speedy adoption of maximum pressure may be strengthened by the regime itself, insofar as it has responded to each round of pressure with renewed belligerence.
While the White House is confident in its ability to stop Iran from exporting to US partners, thereby bringing the country’s oil exports as close to zero as possible, leading Iranian officials have continued to insist upon their own imperviousness. This remained evident on Wednesday when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei insisted, “We can export as much of our oil as we need and want.” This defiance was echoed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whose remarks were accompanied by vague military threats against the US and any other foreign government that tries to impede Iran’s seaborne exports.
Despite his reputation as a comparatively moderate figure in the Iranian regime, Zarif’s remarks to a United Nations session at the Asian Society in New York included the repetition of familiar threats to close off the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation against any efforts to control what passes through the globally important waterway. “We will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil. But if the United States takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that, then it should be prepared for consequences,” Zarif said.
While those remarks were ostensibly focused on the American decision to withhold oil sanction waivers, they also drew clear connections between this issue and the issue of the IRGC blacklist. The foreign minister took time to praise the hardline paramilitary, which has traditionally had an adversarial relationship with the pragmatist administration of President Hassan Rouhani. These tensions seemed to be largely reconciled last month after Zarif was excluded from a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, where Khamenei was present alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Amidst the political fallout from that incident, statements from both factions expressed joint commitment to action on the “front lines” of conflict with the West.
That general amity was upheld during Zarif’s visit to the UN, as his remarks referenced the IRGC to justify his threat of “consequences” for the US. “The United States should know when they enter the Strait of Hormuz, they have to talk to those who are protecting the Strait of Hormuz, and that is Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” he said.
For his part, President Rouhani personally contributed to Iran’s defiant rhetoric by reiterating and expanding upon a principle that has long been promoted by the Supreme Leader. According to Reuters and Rouhani’s official website, he declared that the Islamic Republic would not negotiate with the US in any way, over any topic, unless Washington first removes all sanctions and issues an apology.
Previously, Rouhani was instrumental in securing the 2015 nuclear agreement, although Khamenei explicitly barred his subordinates from engaging in talks with the West over any other matter. But since then, the positions of the hardline and “moderate” factions have drifted closer together with regard to Iran’s relationship with the US and its allies. Meanwhile, the escalating tensions between Iran and the US have been reflected in Iran’s relationship with its regional adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani also took aim at the Gulf Arab states in his latest remarks, condemning them for their willingness to work with the US to make up for the world market’s loss of Iranian oil and declaring that this makes them “a definite enemy of the Iranian people.” But in Washington, Secretary Pompeo also made reference to the Iranian people, highlighting the domestic unrest inside Iranian society and suggesting that the newly imposed sanctions would be welcomed as a sign of solidarity in the fight against the repressive theocratic system.
“These demands are not just coming from the United States government and many of our allies and partners,” Pompeo said, no doubt referring in part to regional powers that have grown anxious about Iran’s imperialist influence. He continued: “They are similar to what we hear from the Iranian people themselves. I want the Iranian people to know we are listening to them and stand with them.”
In covering Pompeo’s announcement of the end of all oil import waivers, the National Review indicated that both he and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin have effectively mirrored Rouhani’s insistence upon an apology and the removal of all pressure. Their past remarks laid out the Trump administration’s terms for lifting sanctions, namely that Iran completely ends its nuclear activity and its support of terrorism, and that it pulls out of Syria entirely. Pompeo has also identified these conditions as part of the vision for Iran beginning to “behave like a normal country.”
But if Iran’s behavior has recently changed in any way, it has only moved in the direction of greater extremism. Supreme Leader Khamenei responded to the IRGC blacklist by installing what appears to be an even more hardline figure as the head of the organization. On Tuesday, IranWire published an analysis of what the paramilitary’s new approach would likely be under the leadership of Hossein Salami, whom it described as “gloomy, bad-tempered, talkative and a braggart.” Meanwhile, Al Monitor pointed to various former statements of Salami’s that underscore this description.
“No decision in the region can be implemented without Iran,” Salami said at one point. On other occasions he declared that “the end of negotiations and compromise with America is war” and that “we’ll answer inspections of military sites with hot lead.” These and other statements were highlighted by hardline Iranian media following Salami’s appointment to lead the IRGC through what Khamenei calls the “second phase” of the Islamic revolution.
According to IranWire, that phase could be defined by “more missiles and a more hawkish approach.” And as a re-posted analysis in the National Interest pointed out, the ongoing development of Iranian missiles could actually pose a risk to American naval forces in the event that Tehran ever decides to follow through on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Such follow through may be marginally more likely in the wake of the ongoing hardline shift among Iranian leaders and institutions. But at the same time, the Trump administration no doubt hopes that by cutting off Iran’s oil exports and severely constraining the IRGC, the regime’s actual ability to pursue belligerent foreign policy will diminish, especially as it continues to face threats from a restive population at home.