By Edward Carney
In the wake of a major upsurge in American economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials appear to be struggling with the issue of which policies and countermeasures to adopt in response.
Sanctions waivers for eight crucial importers of Iranian oil are set to expire before the end of this week, less than three weeks after sanctions went into effect on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a newly designated foreign terrorist organization under US sanctions law. But as of Monday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would only say, “The Islamic Republic’s choices are numerous, and the country’s authorities are considering them.”
In keeping with his role, Zarif floated the idea of an ostensibly diplomatic response, albeit a comparatively aggressive one consisting of withdrawal not only from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but also from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Although US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, its other signatories have been working to keep it in force to the greatest extent possible without incurring serious American penalties. Tehran has frequently threatened to cancel the JCPOA if it does not receive sufficient economic incentives from the other five remaining parties to the agreement. But withdrawal from the NPT would reach well beyond this relatively mild provocation, effectively declaring the regime’s unwillingness to comply even with universal restraints on nuclear weapons work.
This could easily be regarded as a dangerous gambit by a regime that has struggled under the weight of large-scale international isolation. Notably, Zarif’s latest threat comes only days after he suggested that while President Trump may be interested in settling disputes with Iran via negotiation, other entities in his administration could push him into conflict.
The Trump administration has largely sought to disengage from military entanglements in the Middle East, and its Iran strategy has largely focused on supporting the prospect of vigorous domestic opposition to the theocratic regime. But at the same time, the latest sanctions are part of a declared strategy of “maximum pressure” that compels some observers to worry about the possibility of serious escalation.
Tehran certainly lacks the strength to face the American military head-on, but its state propaganda revels in making statements that suggest otherwise. And there has been an outpouring of these statements in the wake of the latest moves by the US. Representatives of Iran’s armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arguably give the impression that the regime is deliberately courting escalation or attempting to call what it perceives to be a bluff by the Trump White House.
Many of these statements suggest the latter interpretation by specifically pushing the onus of potential conflict onto the United States, suggesting that if escalation occurs it will not be at Iran’s hands. On Sunday, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, the Iranian armed forces’ chief of staff, declared for instance: “We don’t intend to close the Strait of Hormuz unless hostilities reach a level where this cannot be avoided. If our oil does not pass, the oil of others shall not pass the Strait of Hormuz either.”
But this statement merely reiterated a warning that Iran has made on many previous occasions, and in less qualified terms. The rhetorical function of Baqeri’s statement was strengthened by accompanying remarks that suggested the IRGC was controlling the situation in the vitally important waterway, as by enforcing the notion that the US Navy is “obliged to respond” to directives and questions from the IRGC’s naval forces whenever transiting the Strait.
These kinds of remarks reinforce longstanding narratives about the IRGC’s strength, and specifically about its readiness to confront American forces. In service of that narrative, Iranian propaganda networks have disseminated animated films showing Iranian vessels sinking US Navy flotillas, and the IRGC itself has sent fast-attack boats into the path of passing warships, sometimes refusing to disengage until warning shots have been fired.
Although the implication is that Iran is confident in its self-described “swarm tactics” for confrontation with the US Navy, this is not considered credible by most military analysts. Yet provocative Iranian gestures continue and may in fact be accelerating in the wake of the latest sanctions measures.
On Saturday, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, released drone footage purporting to show a successful flyby of an American aircraft carrier and its escort. Tasnim did not, however, indicate when the footage was captured, and spokespersons for the US Navy later reported that the carrier in question – the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower – had not been in the Persian Gulf since 2016.
In an e-mail to Agence France-Presse, the Navy reported went further by stating that the footage appears to be “several years old.” The language underscores the apparent deception involved in Iran’s efforts to portray itself as being prepared for open confrontation with US forces as presently constituted in nearby waters.
But this is not to say that Tehran can be trusted not to act upon the implication of its propaganda, either wittingly or unwittingly. US-allied countries in the region have already become extremely concerned about Iran’s growing influence beyond its borders, and some of them are beginning to express concern about the possibility of the IRGC or the regular armed forces following through on frequent, boastful threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.
On Sunday, Reuters quoted Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah as saying, “We are looking at these threats with concern, and hoping as always to distance our region from this tension.” But at the same time that such statements underscore the potential seriousness of Iran’s provocations, they also highlight the potential for the US to leverage regional partnerships in order to prevent those provocations from escalating to the point of direct clashes.
Meanwhile, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other US partners are presumably growing increasingly confident in the American government’s commitment to offering them similar support.
“We’re going to continue to reach out to our partners and friends in the region to ensure that we make common cause against the threat of Iran,” said General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, on Saturday before declaring that in spite of a pending draw-down of US forces in Syria and elsewhere, the American government and military will still “have the resources necessary to deter Iran from taking actions that will be dangerous,” for as long as necessary.