Many of these third party nations are still trying to maintain a relatively neutral position in the escalating diplomatic conflict, but it is not clear how tenable this will be in the coming days and weeks. The nations of Europe, especially the three who signed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal along with the US, the Islamic Republic, China, and Russia, have insisted upon keeping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in effect despite US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from it in May. But Trump and his foreign policy officials have stated that they expect coordinated action to contribute to maximum pressure on the Iranian regime by the time the second round of sanctions goes into effect in November, targeting Iran’s oil economy and banking industry.
This message was reiterated on Sunday when the UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper published an editorial by US ambassador Woody Johnson criticizing Tehran for “proxy wars and malign activities” and emphasizing that the current American strategy involves exerting high levels of pressure on the regime to compel it toward extensive change. The article went on to urge the UK to stand alongside its traditional ally and “use its considerable diplomatic power and influence and join us as we lead a concerted global effort toward a genuinely comprehensive agreement.”
Reuters notes that British officials have so far continued to reject the request. But the editorial was presumably only a preview of the lobbying that is still to come and the US works toward Western consensus. Meanwhile, that project may be helped along by ongoing developments in Iran’s domestic situation and its behavior on the world stage.
In the first place, protests inside the Islamic Republic continue to underscore the tensions that exist between the Iranian government and its people. Reuters says of those protests, they “have often begun with slogans against the high cost of living and alleged financial corruption, but quickly turned into anti-government rallies.” New protests broke out in approximately a dozen cities around the time the new sanctions went into effect, suggesting that the continuation of this US strategy may fuel still more unrest and thus raise the prospects for the regime either making serious concessions or collapsing altogether.
In the second place, and somewhat in contrast to the apparent vulnerability that has been exposed by the protests, Tehran is seemingly responding to the new situation by turning toward its Asian partners and allies, in the interest of counterbalancing some sanctions and aligning those parties against Western interests. There have been various signs of Iran trending toward greater trade and security cooperation, particularly with China and Russia, in the recent past. As the BBC reported, Iranian-Russia relations may have been reinforced on Sunday when the two countries joined with the three other nations that border the Caspian Sea to tentatively resolve a longstanding territorial dispute.
In a much more general sign of Iran’s pivot toward Asia, the Islamic Republic announced that it would soon be selling oil and gas to some buyers at a discounted rate. As the Washington Times pointed out in reporting on that story, the announcement is simultaneously a sign of Iran’s defiance of Western pressure and a sign of the potentially devastating effects of that pressure, since Iran will ostensibly still be selling its oil, but will be forced to accept much lesser revenue from it.
But question remain as to which Asian nations will openly defy US sanctions in order to maintain their trade relations with Iran. A number of governments are noticeably struggling with the question of how to maintain favorable relations with the two adversaries, or whether this is even possibly. Iraq, being increasingly subject to the influence of its immediate neighbor but also somewhat reliant on its relationship with its former occupier, is a notable example.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi evidently attempted to remain neutral by saying that his government did not support the US sanctions but had no choice other than to comply with them. But on Monday, the Washington Post reported that Iran had responded by cancelling a planned meeting between Abadi and Iranian officials. And Al Jazeera added that Abadi had in turn responded by walking back his comments and insisting that he had only meant that Iran and Iraq would not be able to trade in US dollars, but would maintain trade relations nonetheless.
Tehran’s tentatively effective pressure on the Iraqi government may have emboldened the Iranian regime to maintain its defiant posture as the effects of sanctions begin to take hold. This posture was certainly on display in a speech delivered to thousands of Iranians by Supreme Leader Khamenei on Monday. Although Reuters reports that it provided assurances that there would be no war between the two countries, it also reiterated the regime’s position that it would not undertake any negotiations with the US now that the US has exited the JCPOA.
And despite Khamenei’s denial of bellicose intentions, the Iranian military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have seemingly resumed certain aggressive measures in recent days. Although the IRGC tested a number of ballistic missiles in the first year and a half after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, the last known incident was in March 2017. But these transparent violations of the UN resolution governing the JCPOA evidently resumed last week, when a short-range ballistic missile was fired as part of Iranian naval exercises whose schedule had been moved up after the resumption of sanctions enforcement.
ABC News reported that the exercise involved the IRGC’s small vessel “swarm” tactics, which the hardline paramilitary has presented as a means of confronting a larger and more powerful navy and closing off the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian government officials including President Hassan Rouhani have repeatedly floated the idea of just such a closure in the event they deem it necessary to retaliate against Western pressures.
The naval exercises and ballistic missile test were arguably made more significant on Monday when the Iranian Defense Ministry announced the unveiling of a new ballistic missile with the provocative name of “Bright Conquerer,” which allegedly has a maximum range exceeding 800 miles and was described by Defense Minister Amir Hatami as being agile, capable of evading radar, and having pinpoint accuracy, according to Business Insider.
Hatami also sought to specifically associate the introduction of that missile with Iran’s other efforts at defying the increasingly intense, US-led pressure. “The more intense are sanctions, pressures, smear campaigns, and psychological warfare against the great nation of Iran,” he said, “the greater will become our will to enhance our defensive power in all areas.”