Reuters reported on Monday that the state-owned Qatari Airways was planning to expand its service to Iran, despite the fact that wide-ranging US sanctions on the Islamic Republic went back into force during the first week of November. The move is arguably a gesture of defiance aimed not only at the Trump White House but also at regional powers that have longstanding status as allies of the US and adversaries of the Iranian regime.
In June 2017, Qatar came under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after they accused the small Middle Easter country of supporting terrorism and trying to counteract a policy of isolating Tehran. Egypt and Bahrain joined the Saudis and the UAE in severing economic and political ties, but Qatar has seemingly grown closer to Iran since then.
Meanwhile, dissent against economic sanctions has also continued to emanate from sources that are both geographically and politically closer to the US. The Associated Press reported on Monday that the European Union and Iran were still mutually “affirming their support for the international nuclear deal” from which the US withdrew in May. This sentiment was expressed, for instance, by EU Energy Commissioner Arias Canete in advance of a meeting held in Brussels to discuss civil nuclear cooperation between the EU and the Islamic Republic.
The EU generally maintains that the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is serving its purpose effectively, but US President Donald Trump and other harsh critics of the Iranian regime believe that Tehran still aspires to obtain nuclear weapons, and so they demand greater restrictions on relevant Iranian activities.
But the American withdrawal also established broader expectations regarding Tehran’s overall foreign policy and its influence on regional conflicts. The Iranian leadership has so far rejected any notion of renegotiation of the JCPOA, as well as negotiations involving anything other than the regime’s nuclear program.
This defiant position was reiterated over the weekend, as Tehran hosted the latest “Islamic Unity Conference,” at which its highest ranking officials joined in condemning US pressure and encouraging coordinated opposition to American policies and interests.
In keeping with the theocratic regime’s self-identity as a standard-bearer for political Islam and an opponent of Western worldviews, the conference also provided an outlet for more general anti-Western propaganda as well as commentary targeting the state of Israel, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described as a “cancerous tumor” despite his reputation as a supposedly more moderate figure within the clerical establishment.
That reputation has previously been undermined by his administration’s failure to counteract an escalating crackdown on domestic dissent or to follow through on progressive campaign promises such as securing release for the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement protests. Furthermore, Rouhani and his cabinet ministers have certainly contributed to anti-Western rhetoric, including declarations of military readiness and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, especially in the wake of the US exit from the nuclear agreement.
Rouhani’s moderate credentials were further called into question by his place of promise in the Islamic Unity Conference, which explicitly frames regional issues in terms of conflict between a US-led foreign alliance and the Muslim world in its entirety, without acknowledgment for internal political differences.
In other words, the conference showcased political alignment between Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the head of the “hardline” faction of Iranian politics as well as being the ultimate authority in all major affairs of state. Fox News indicated that Rouhani’s televised speech at Saturday’s conference was distinctly reminiscent of earlier commentary from the supreme leader’s office. And Reuters noted that that commentary was reiterated on Khamenei’s official website, which declared that “world powers headed by America” are fixated on Tehran and the Middle East because they fear an “Islamic awakening.”
The statement went on to say that the US and its regional allies “will be defeated” in areas like Yemen, where they are competing with Iran for influence. Tehran blames a Saudi-led bombing campaign for the devastation that the Yemeni people have experienced during the three year civil war, while the Saudis blame the Iran-backed uprising by Shiite militants known as the Houthi. Last week, the White House endorsed the latter talking point in a statement that highlighted the threat of Iranian influence and Iran-backed terrorism as a major reason for maintaining close ties with the government of Saudi Arabia.
Such statements evidently showcase the American commitment to a policy of maximum pressure, which includes economic strategies that aim to bring Iran’s global oil exports as close to zero as possible. For the time being, the US Treasury is granting limited exemptions from sanctions to countries that are dependent upon Iranian oil. But these exemptions are conditional upon major reductions in those exports, and the sanctions are expected to tighten as partners of the US moved toward other energy sources.
The forthcoming escalation will presumably challenge Iranian defiance, as well as the efforts by the European Union, Qatar, and others to support the Iranian position with respect to the future of the JCPOA.
But in the meantime, the threat of that escalation may be indirectly encouraging more defiance, as Iran makes appeals for help to all existing and prospective partners. In some cases, as in nuclear talks with the EU, these appeals take the form of promoting economic cooperation. But in other cases, as with Qatar and the Islamic Unity Conference, they constitute a commitment to antagonizing mutual adversaries, either within the Middle East region or around the globe.