In the midst of escalating tensions between Iran and the West, it has been easier to recognize the underlying agreement between Iran’s “hardline” and “reformist” political factions, at least where foreign policy is concerned. This is to say that representatives of the latter faction, led by President Hassan Rouhani, have been contributing to the spread of confrontational and often militarist rhetoric right alongside hardline figures like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Admittedly, public statements by Rouhani and his closest political allies still tend to evoke a somewhat more measured tone. But this arguably results only in those statements conveying a vague, ominous threat. Such was the case on Wednesday when Rouhani responded to ongoing efforts by the US to cut off all Iranian oil exports. “World powers know that in the case that oil is completely sanctioned and Iran’s oil exports are brought down to zero, international waterways can’t have the same security as before,” he said.
While this statement leaves open the possibility that Rouhani is referring to effects of the US maximum pressure campaign which are not in Iran’s direct control, it is naturally much easier to conclude that he was threatening to deliberately undermine the security situation in response to the continued enforcement of sanctions. This interpretation also comports with Iran’s other activities in the region during recent months, which have included attacks on six tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the shoot-down of an American surveillance drone over international waters, and the seizure of a British-flagged vessel that was transiting the Strait of Hormuz in mid-July.
Further supporting the perception of broad alignment between hardline and reformist members of Iran’s clerical establishment, Rouhani’s remarks were delivered in the context of a meeting with the Supreme Leader, who wields ultimate authority over all matters of state and has led the way in rejecting American appeals for negotiations that might lead to resolution of the present crisis.
Both the US and Iran have attempted to assure foreign observers that they are not courting armed conflict, yet many remain concerned about the possibility of the two parties accidentally stumbling into war or at least isolated skirmishes. Provided that the US is indeed limiting its military deployments and maneuvers to those which deter Iranian provocations, one would expect American technological superiority to be a substantial safeguard on its own. But rather than acknowledging this as a reason to avoid escalation, Iranian hardliners have actively sought to portray the US Navy’s clear restraint in the current crisis as a sign that Tehran is winning in the confrontation.
On Wednesday, just ahead of Iran’s National Day of the Defense Industry, the country’s Defense Ministry published a statement boasting about the supposed advancements of Iran’s military capability and claiming that it had given rise to “panic and terror among the enemies of Iran.” And in the previous week, the English-language outlet for Iranian state propaganda quoted the commander of the Iranian Army’s Air Defense Force as saying, “the enemy today has stopped at a distance of 200 miles away from the Strait of Hormuz and is pulling out its vessels from the Persian Gulf.”
The earlier remarks evidently referred to both the US and Britain. But far from retreating in the face of the regional crisis, both of those countries are jointly leading an effort to develop multilateral deterrence measures aimed specifically at confronting threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. The US Navy’s position outside the Strait is specifically designed to encourage other nations’ militaries to provide security to commercial vessels bearing their own flags. This is exactly what the British Royal Navy has been doing since shortly after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Stena Impero in retaliation for British enforcement of EU sanctions. And while it is true that one British warship is scheduled to depart the region in the near future, it will be replaced by another in keeping with regular rotation of military assets.
Nonetheless, the Iranian Defense Ministry and the IRGC continued to downplay Western capabilities and commitment to addressing Iranian threats, even as Britain and the US began to make progress toward developing a broader coalition to secure the region’s waterways. Bahrain’s official news agency announced on Monday that the Middle Eastern island nation would offer some of its own military assets to the effort, and on Wednesday the Prime Minister of Australia declared that it is in his country’s national interest “to work with our international partners to contribute to an international maritime security mission.”
Meanwhile, as other nations delay in answering American requests for participation in what has been called “Operation Sentinel,” some have signaled that they are at least willing to cooperate with broader US efforts to maintain pressure on the Islamic Republic. Of course, these signals have been emerging in various areas of the globe for more than a year, ever since the Trump administration withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tehran has since stopped complying with its obligations under that same deal, in a thus-far unsuccessful bid to compel the other remaining signatories to help Iranian businesses evade re-imposed and expanded sanctions.
Last week, the Islamic Republic arguably gained access to another talking point in support of its claims of superiority over Western “enemies,” when the British overseas territory of Gibraltar agreed to release the supertanker full of Iranian oil which had been seized on July 4 while supposedly en route to Syria. But the true significance of that release came into question on Wednesday when it was reported that the Adrian Darya, formerly known as the Grace 1, would not be permitted to enter its first intended port of call in Greece.
The reason for Greek authorities’ refusal was somewhat ambiguous, with the nation’s Deputy Foreign Minister saying that the ship is too large for any Greek port to accommodate it, but also acknowledging that the government had come under pressure from the US not to provide any help to the tanker. This pressure was also generalized to every partner nation and every ship carrying Iranian oil, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that any offer of assistance to such a vessel would open the offending country up to US sanctions.
Pompeo also told reporters on Tuesday that the US will take “every action” that it can to prevent the Adrian Darya from reaching Syria, where prospective buyers of Iranian oil remain under sanction by the entire European Union over rampant human rights abuses by the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after Gibraltar gave the order for the supertanker’s release, the White House initiated a legal challenge which was ultimately unsuccessful at preventing the ship from setting sail. Since then, the Trump administration has been mulling the option of ordering the US Navy to re-capture the ship. However, the latest remarks from the State Department suggest that, at least for now, the US is declining to take such action over its own universal sanctions on Iranian oil, but may do so if the Adrian Darya resumes its efforts to violate the EU measures.
The ship’s release stemmed in part from the signing of an agreement that stated Iran would not endeavor to sell any of the estimated two million barrels of oil to Syria. But Iran gave no indication of what alternate plans it would adopt. In fact, the ship’s operator never acknowledged that Syria was the intended destination, though British authorities insisted they had ample evidence to support their conclusion. Tehran maintains that it must keep plans for the oil secret because of the fact that buyers face the threat of American enforcement measures.
All of this only adds to questions about what will happen now that the Adrian Darya anticipated being refused entry into Greek territory. When asked what would happen if the ship tried to weigh anchor offshore without actually entering a Greek port, authorities would only say, “In that case we will see what will happen.” But further remarks on the situation pointed to Greek skepticism about Iran’s intentions, with Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, the Deputy Foreign Minister, saying that his country is “not willing to facilitate the course of this ship to Syria.”
This in turn reflects Pompeo’s assessment of where partner nations stand on US efforts to block Iranian oil sales that might benefit the Assad regime or “off-loaded, sold, used by the Quds force, an organization that has killed countless Americans and people all across the world.” Such a rationale for maximum pressure is, according to Pompeo, “shared by the entire world.”
If that is correct, it would cast serious doubt on the notion that Gibraltar’s release of the Adrian Darya represents meaningful progress toward resolution of the crisis surrounding Iranian threats to maritime shipping. And in fact the Islamic Republic had already undermined that perception soon after the release was announced, when officials stated that the British-flagged vessel being held in Iran, the Stena Impero, would not be released until after the Adrian Darya reached its destination.
Even so, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Minister continued to insist on Monday that there is “no connection whatsoever” between the two seizures. But the Revolutionary Guard had established that connection even before the latter seizure took place, encouraging retaliation for sanctions enforcement measures. With similar threats still emanating from both hardline and reformist circles in the Islamic Republic, its declared enemies in the West are likely to be very sensitive to additional provocations. And so the existing crisis may yet deepen if Iran decides to exert more pressure on the Stena Impero or violate the terms of the agreement for the release of the Adrian Darya.