By Edward Carney
On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech to country’s armed forces in which he urged them to increase their power with the specific aim of “scaring off the enemy,” namely the United States.
Reuters reported that Khamenei’s first remarks to this effect were delivered in the context of a graduation ceremony for army cadets, but were quickly followed by a visit to the city of Nowshahr in which he said, “Iran and the Iranian nation have resisted America and proven that, if a nation is not afraid of threats by bullies and relies on its own capabilities, it can force the superpowers to retreat and defeat them.”
Reuters also noted that Khamenei spoke by video to an Iranian naval commander in order to praise the presence of the Islamic Republic’s forces off the coast of Yemen. This move appeared to be at odds with the Iranian government’s official position that it is not intervening in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War, although independent experts generally agree that the Shiite Houthi rebels are actively supported by Iran, with direct assistance by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This arguably speaks to rising levels of boldness, or perhaps rising levels of recklessness in Tehran’s defiance of international calls for a halt to the regime’s malign and destabilizing behaviors. This defiance affects Iran’s relations not only with the US but also with much of Europe and much of the world.
Reuters indicated that France recently called for negotiations with Iran over its ballistic missile program and its role in both Yemen and Syria, but this request was roundly rejected by Iranian officials.
The potential effectiveness of Iran’s defiant strategy is a matter of some uncertainty, and it depends in large part on the reactions of other nations, apart from leading Western powers. So far, European governments, including that of France, have been standing behind the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which US President Donald Trump withdrew in May, prompting a new escalation in the ongoing war of words between Tehran and Washington.
But European disagreement with the US over this issue has not translated to much concrete action in defiance of US strategy, and it seems increasingly unlikely that such defiance would emerge at a time when Iran refuses to listen to European concerns over its regional role.
At the same time, many non-European partners of the US, along with many international businesses based in Europe, have been highly responsive to the return of American sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal.
The first round of these sanctions were re-imposed last month, and the second will go into effect in November with the stated intention of cutting Iran’s oil exports to zero, or as close to it as is feasible. Yet some of those who stand to be affected by the sanctions are not waiting for the grace period to expire.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported that South Korea had just become the first country to fully align itself with Washington’s demands by ending all imports of Iranian oil. The complete absence of such imports in August compares to an average of 194,000 barrels per day imported during July.
This figure underscores the fact that South Korea had been one of Iran’s largest oil importers during the time that sanctions relief was in place, and thus it underscores the seriousness of the difficulties that Iran may face if it continues defy Western norms while failing to compensate for the large-scale loss of trading partners.
Of course, the Islamic Republic is putting forth considerable effort to compensate, but it is difficult to say whether, or to what extent, this effect will pay off. Various geopolitical circumstances could still alter the amount of influence that Iran and the US each have over countries in Iran’s immediate vicinity, as well as throughout the world.
One of the primary means by which Iran hopes to undercut US sanctions is by reaching out to those governments that share the Iranian regime’s interest in freeing themselves from American dominance of the global financial system and of many areas of global policy.
This speaks to the longstanding concerns among some Western analysts regarding the emergence of an eastern bloc of countries that are aligned in opposition to Western interests – a bloc that would presumably include Iran alongside Russia, China, and North Korea.
There are various recent developments that highlight the mutual pursuit of expanded relations among some of these nations, but there are also complicating factors in most of these areas.
The potential for military coordination among Iran, China, and North Korea was put into the spotlight on Friday when defense officials from each of those three countries met in Beijing, after which Chinese state media quoted General Zhang Youxia as saying, “The friendship between China and Iran has stood the test of the complex international situation and the two countries have formed a deep feeling of sharing weal and woe.”
In reporting upon this and other recent communications, Newsweek expressly described China as “courting” both Iran and North Korea in the midst of deteriorating relations and an emerging trade war with the US.
At the same time, Russia continues to hold tight to its alliance with Iran, apparently in the interest of opposing Western interests in Syria and the broader Middle East, as well as compensating for the effects of multilateral sanctions targeting Russia’s own malign behavior, including incursions into Ukraine and alleged assassination attempts on foreign soil.
Toward this end, the governor of the Russian central bank is reportedly planning to meet with his Iranian counterpart in order to discuss plans to facilitate trade in local currencies instead of the US dollar, in order to evade sanctions.
According to reports the meeting will also involve the Turkish central bank governor, as Istanbul has the preliminary plan also involves participation from Turkey.
However, avoiding the US dollar is easier said than done, and implementing the plan will entail significant logistical costs. This could amplify the effects of any further strain on the relationships among prospective partner nations. And at least where Turkey is concerned, political tensions may already been growing in the wake of the latest meeting among these three nations regarding the future of Syria.
Al Jazeera reported on Friday that Iran and Russia had both rejected Turkey’s call for a ceasefire in the area of Idlib, the last stronghold for Syrian rebel groups opposed to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently called for the area to be “cleaned out,” and Russia has signaled willingness to provide air support to an Iranian-led ground operation.
This situation may push Istanbul further away from both Tehran and Moscow, in light of the Turkish government’s persistent opposition to Assad’s Iranian-backed regime. At the same time, it may increase the pressure that all would-be partners of Iran face from Western powers.
While Russian-Iranian relations seem to face none of the strain that surrounds each country’s relationship with Turkey, their willingness to remain in lockstep on Syria policy could also be a source of increased Western pressure.
This is the implication of a recent shift in policy by the Trump administration, which was detailed by Business Insider last week. In contrast to previous statements teasing a withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria, President Trump himself now says that he is prepared to leave those troops in place indefinitely, until all Iranian personnel and weapons withdraw first.
This is something that Russia has apparently rejected out of hand, leading the White House to address its further commentary on the topic to the Assad regime and all of its backers.
For instance, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley followed up on the president’s own statements by raising the specter of Syrian deployments of chemical weapons, which have prompted two previous missile strikes by the US. According to Fox News, Haley addressed Syria, Russia, and Iran to say, “You don’t want to bet against the United States responding again.”
While some Western observers may worry that such warnings could prompt more, not fewer, regional players to align themselves with Iran in order to strike a blow against American hegemony, there are prominent developments that undermine this narrative and suggest that for certain local players, Iran’s regional hegemony is considered a greater threat.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that protesters in the Iraqi port city of Basra stormed and set fire to the Iranian consulate building while chanting “Iran, out!” It was the latest sign of local opposition to an expanding Iranian presence in Iraqi political and military affairs.
As in Syria, multiple local Shiite militias swear allegiance to Iran, and these have spawned political wings that are now grappling with independent or US-aligned groups in an effort to control the future of the country and the surrounding region.
Naturally, this is an effort that will be fiercely opposed by the US and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Europe.
But the Basra incident calls attention to the fact that Iran’s relationships even with its immediate neighbors are not so firmly established as to provide the regime with stable allies in an overarching project to defy its Western “enemies.”