By Edward Carney
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi government was pursuing exemptions from US sanctions on Iranian exports, particularly gas exports that are used for electricity generation in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi declared that he would be dispatching a delegation to the US, and he insisted that “the American side is cooperating with Iraq to find solutions.” Without confirmation from US officials, however, this is a dubious claim.
Ahead of the full re-imposition of sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the White House did grant some sanctions waivers to allies, but these waivers were more limited in scope than those that had been granted by the previous administration, and they were strictly contingent upon ongoing reductions in the amounts of Iranian oil imported by the relevant states. Overall, the administration’s goal for Iran sanctions remains to bring Iranian oil exports as close as possible to zero.
Apart from this general strategy of economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, there is another reason why the US may be wary of granting the current Iraqi government exemptions to Iran sanctions. Iraqi has long been a lynchpin for Iranian efforts to expand its influence throughout the Middle East, and the Iraqi prime minister who boasted of American “cooperation” on Tuesday is apparently making concerted efforts to enable that influence.
Key details of those efforts were featured in an editorial by former Member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson, which was published by UPI on Tuesday.
It explained that there has been massive discord within the Iraqi government over Mahdi’s attempted appointment of Faleh al-Fayadh as Interior Minister. According to Stevenson, al-Fayadh “was the brutal security adviser to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and masterminded the military assaults on the PMOI/MEK refugees in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty, killing 168 defenseless men and women and wounding a further 1,700.”
This has naturally contributed to staunch opposition to the appointment among parliamentary factions that are opposed to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, which has been compounded in recent years by Tehran’s backing of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces that now operate in parallel with Iraqi security forces but are comprised almost entirely of Shiite sectarian militias. Lawmakers have walked out on multiple attempts to certify al-Fayadh’s nomination, but Mahdi has refused to back down. And more than that, he has apparently enlisted help from Tehran and its affiliates to ramp up pressure in favor of the appointment.
According to the UPI article, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, has been on a diplomatic tour of Iraqi to advocate for Fayadh’s appointment among government officials and with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government. At the same time, Suleimani has been linked to a series of assassinations of key opponents of Fayadh and, more generally, key critics of Iranian influence over Iraqi affairs.
These developments are likely to be regarded with some anxiety by the US government, which has made a priority of containing Iran’s regional influence, and has sought to build an anti-Iran coalition to help achieve that goal. With the ISIL terrorist group largely defeated in Syria, the White House has pivoted its Syrian strategy toward the removal of Iranian forces and Iranian proxies from that country. Similarly, in Yemen, the US has maintained support for the Saudi-led fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and it has made repeated efforts to sharpen international focus on the issue of Iran’s illicit smuggling of weapons to the Houthi and other regional proxy forces.
These efforts were given renewed prominence at the end of November when Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, hosted an event to showcase weapons components that had been recovered from Yemen or seized in the Strait of Hormuz, which showed clear evidence of Iranian manufacture. This followed upon a similar exhibition at the end of 2017, led by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. The claims of Iranian smuggling were both given subsequent validation by the United Nations in its report on the status of the Security Council resolution that governed the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and reinforced restrictions on Iran’s export of military equipment.
In the present case, Reuters reports that the UN examined two launch units for anti-tank guided missiles that had been recovered from Yemen and determined them to have been manufactured in Iran as recently as last year. Although UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stopped short of saying that Iran was definitively in violation of the relevant resolution, the time frame undermines previous defenses that had been offered on Iran’s behalf, namely that older weapons might have come into the possession of Yemeni rebels only gradually and by a circuitous route.
The recent UN report also examined the debris from ballistic missiles that had been fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, and it found that as with previous such missiles, their features showed clear consistency with the design of Iranian ballistic missiles such as the Qiam-1. UN Security Council resolution 2231 calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid development and testing of ballistic missiles and other weapons that are capable of carrying a nuclear payload, but Tehran has publicly dismissed the provision as non-binding and has conducted at least a dozen such tests as well as continuing to build up its ballistic missile stockpiles.
This has naturally contributed to tensions between Iran and the US, and those tensions intensified once again last week, when the US and key European allies condemned another provocative missile launch by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Islamic Republic later confirmed that the test had taken place, according to the Associated Press. The report noted that General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s aerospace division expressed pride over the American outcry, saying that it underscored the importance of the test.
In light of the findings from Yemen and the surrounding area, the American outcry presumably stems in large part from the perceived role of ballistic missiles in the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region. This may also help to explain Hajizadeh’s belief in the importance of ongoing testing of such weapons.
The AP report notes that “the U.S. seized on the missile test to urge European countries to follow its lead in restoring tough sanctions on Iran.” And although the United Kingdom and France led the way in requesting a closed-door meeting of the Security Council over this issue, the long-term commitment of these and other European nations remains a matter of some uncertainty.
European opposition to Iran’s destructive regional influence has seemingly been mitigated by desire for access to Iranian oil, and more generally by commitment to upholding the nuclear deal from which the US withdrew in May. That commitment has even led to efforts by the European Union to undermine US sanctions and enable long-term transactions with the Islamic Republic. On Monday, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini claimed that the “special purpose vehicle” for such transactions would likely be in place by the end of the year.
However, the Reuters report on Mogherini’s comments noted that “EU diplomats had hoped to have the SPV in place by now but ran into delays as member states balked at hosting it for fear of being targeted by the revived U.S. sanctions regime.” Mogherini provided no details to indicate that these obstacles had been fully overcome. In fact, she acknowledged that Iran’s troubling behaviors, such as its ballistic missile tests and weapons smuggling, could have an adverse impact on European outreach to the Islamic Republic.
“Our strong support for the implementation of the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal) doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye for other issues,” Mogherini said, according to Reuters. The same report also indicated that although France and Germany have supposedly agreed to jointly host the SPV, that mechanism might be much more limited in scope than it was original conceived to be. That is to say, it may exclude Iran’s all-important oil trade, thereby allowing the US to more freely pursue its goal of eliminating all Iranian oil exports.
Over the short term, Iranian officials can be expected to downplay the effects of such a move while also using it as grounds to reiterate threats of renewed and expanded nuclear activities. The Iranian war of words with foreign adversaries has included countless instances of Tehran dismissing US sanctions as ineffective, but such claims rarely stand up to scrutiny.
On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iranian oil exports had actually increased since early November, despite previous claims by US officials that those exports had fallen by as much as one-third in the preceding months. But even if Rouhani’s claims prove accurate, it would only be a testament to the sacrifices the Islamic Republic has had to make in order to keep its economy afloat in the face of escalating foreign pressure.
As Reuters reported on Monday, Iran has reduced its oil prices for three consecutive months, selling at prices between 30 cents and $1.25 lower than comparable grades of Saudi Arabian oil. This has helped to preserve the interest of Asian oil buyers, but there has been no indication so far that it may help to overcome the impulse toward compliance with sanctions by countries with closer partnerships with the West.
Neither is it clear that these low-cost Asian imports will have much of an impact upon the ongoing economic crisis in Iran, which is rooted not only in foreign economic pressure but also in Tehran’s insistence upon large-scale spending on projects of foreign influence at a time of widespread domestic deprivation and unrest.