Forced to Draw Back From Direct Confrontation With the US, Tehran Merely Shifts Focus

Earlier in March, US Navy Commander William Urban said of the Iranians, “It seems they’ve absolutely made a conscious decision to give us more space. That is definitely a change in their behavior.” Urban did not speculate about the reasons for the change, but the Business Insider piece joined with supporters of the Trump administration in attributing it to the effects of that administrations’ much more assertive policies with regard to the Islamic Republic.

The piece called attention to a remark made by Donald Trump in September 2016, when he was still campaigning for office, in which he warned that Iranian vessels would “be shot out of the water” under his leadership if they appeared to threaten US warships. The article went on to point out that Trump issued no explicit warnings about the naval incidents after taking office. But according to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the earlier remarks were indicative of Trump’s “unpredictability,” which “made Iran more reticent to test American red lines.”

However, neither Schanzer nor Business Insider goes so far as to credit Trump’s assertiveness and unpredictability with turning around Iranian behavior in general. Quite the contrary, the article quotes Schanzer as saying that Tehran seems to have concluded that there is now “less of a policy with regard to their regional activity from Yemen to Iraq to Syria,” notwithstanding Trump’s rhetorical attacks on such activity. The White House has cited the confrontation of that activity as one of its conditions for remaining in the 2015 agreement over Iran’s nuclear activities, but many critics have suggested that there is a lack of clarity about what Trump actually expects in this area.

But whether it is a consequence of uncertain Western policies or some other strategic calculation on Iran’s part, the Business Insider article indicates that the Islamic Republic has drawn back on its direct antagonism of Western assets but has stepped up other activities, some of which constitute asymmetrical warfare against the US and its allies.

One such activity that has periodically returned to the spotlight in recent years is coordinated Iranian hacking and cyberespionage. In fact, on Friday the US Justice Department announced the indictment of nine Iranian who are accused of participating in a massive hacking operation against US computer systems, at the direction of the IRGC. The operation targeted private companies, government agencies, and academic institutions, and this latter category of victims reportedly suffered the theft of 31 terabytes worth of information and intellectual property, valued at 3.2 billion dollars.

Newsweek quoted US Attorney Geoffrey Berman as saying the indictment represented “one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” In that respect, it lends further credence to the longstanding reports that Iran has been channeling more and more resources into cyber attacks, greatly raising the level of its hacking capabilities in the process.

But even in absence of IRGC harassment of American naval vessels, the most prevalent threats posed by the Islamic Republic are still threats to Western-allied entities in the Persian Gulf region. The persistence of this threat was highlighted on Monday with reports of a barrage of missiles fired at Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Washington Post indicates that the latest attack occurred on the anniversary of the start of a Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthi, who overran the capital city of Sanaa in 2015 and drove the elected and internationally recognized President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi into exile.

Last year, the Trump administration began an international campaign to bring attention to evidence that Iran was arming the Houthi, in violation of United Nations resolutions targeting both Yemen and Iran itself. This armament includes ballistic missiles like those put on display by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a press conference following a series of earlier Houthi missile launches into Saudi territory. Each of these strikes has reportedly been intercepted by the Saudis, but the latest incident involved seven separate missiles and resulted in at least one death and two injuries, indicating a threat that may still be growing.

There are still outstanding questions about whether that threat will be effectively confronted by the US and its allies in the wake of international talks that are aimed at preserving the nuclear agreement while also addressing President Trump’s concerns about the expansion of Iran’s influence and destabilizing activities. But the Washington Post notes that the latest Houthi strikes coincided with a visit to the United States by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which may be helping to keep pressure on American policymakers to act in the interest of their longstanding Middle Eastern ally.

At the same time, the White House is undergoing changes in personnel that promise to raise pressure toward similar ends. In April, current CIA Direct Mike Pompeo is expected to take over the position of Secretary of State, and former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton is expected to step in as National Security Advisor. Both men have emulated the president’s contempt for the Iran nuclear deal and for Iran in general, and both have spoken rather openly about the prospect for regime change.

If Trump’s “unpredictability” helped to stop the harassment of American vessels in the Persian Gulf, it stands to reason that these appointments will bolster the perception of unpredictability and perhaps compel Tehran to draw back from other antagonistic measures. For the time being, though, the focus of most Western analysts is on the threat that this poses to the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

On Monday, Al Jazeera reiterated the assumption that these appointments send a clear message about the likelihood of American withdrawal from that deal. Already in January, Trump warned that he would not renew sanctions waivers under the agreement when they come due in May unless Congress and the European signatories to the JCPOA agree on a plan to address Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile activities while expanding access for international nuclear inspectors and making restrictions on Iranian nuclear enrichment activities permanent. With this warning now being strengthened, Iranian officials are reportedly designing contingency plans for the end of the JCPOA and claiming readiness, even while holding out hope that the Europeans will save the deal.

Also on Monday, Five Thirty Eight examined four different courses of action that the Trump administration might take to undermine the JCPOA. The article listed these from least to most aggressive, starting with the re-imposition only of direct sanctions on Iran. The second alternative is the re-imposition of all nuclear sanctions – a measure that would cause problems for Europeans who have sought to reenter the Iranian market since the signing of the JCPOA. Thirdly, the White House could formally declare its withdrawal from the deal, and lastly, it could do so while also threatening military strikes against Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

Given the confrontational style of advisors like John Bolton, the president may soon find greater support for one of the more aggressive options, although it is also possible that threats would only be intended to reassert leverage and bring the Islamic Republic back to the negotiating table, much as earlier threats ostensibly compelled a smaller scale change in behavior.

There are already definite signs of anxiety within the Iranian regime regarding the change in White House personnel, but it is not yet clear how those officials intend to react. Al Jazeera reports that at least one member of the Iranian parliament declare the Pompeo and Bolton appointments to be proof of the White House’s ultimate goal of regime change in Iran. But the same report indicates that the regime’s preparations still remain focused on the possible loss of the JCPOA.

As an example, US News and World reported that Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament, had urged a greater shift toward Russia and China in the wake of Bolton’s appointment. This strategy may help the Islamic Republic to hedge against the possible severance of economic relations with Europe, at a time when Iran’s economic indicators are still faltering and contributing to persistent domestic unrest. At the same time, an eastward shift might also provide Iran with some political cover at a time when Western policies seem to pose a threat to the clerical regime and even force Tehran to reconsider some of its regional activities.