On Monday the Trump administration announced a new series of sanctions against Iran, the latest phase in the US campaign to exert maximum pressure on Tehran. The latest batch of sanctions will target Iran’s weapons manufacturing industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the action today at a joint press conference with the principal members of the Trump administration’s national security team. President Trump had earlier signed an executive order related to the sanctions.
“Today, I will take the first action under this new executive order by sanctioning the Iranian Ministry of Defense and armed forces logistics and Iran’s defense industries organization and its director,” Pompeo said.
The announcement comes as the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York City. This year, the gathering will be like no other in the UN’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the diplomatic interaction and speeches will come through digital means. The renewal of UN-sponsored sanctions against Iran was expected to be a topic for discussion at the General Assembly but under the circumstances it no longer appears probable.
Iran’s currency reacted to a previous US announcements earlier in the weekend that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored. The rial hit a record low on Sunday owing largely to Iranian-US tensions. The rial has lost roughly half of its value in 2020.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the appearance of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in close proximity to the Iranian coast. Nimitz and her escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz late last week, and is the first US aircraft carrier to operate within the Gulf since November, 2019.
This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.
This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.
Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.
The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.
President Trump’s address to the nation this morning laid out the US position in clear terms. Barring any further action by Iran, this crisis is and the ball is now in Tehran’s court. Trump opened the door to future negotiations, calling for a new, revised nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) that was implemented in January of 2016. Trump pointed out that Iran is standing down, a move that certainly helps to reduce tension, and open a pathway for future discussion. The president went on to call for NATO to adopt a larger role in the region, likely hinting at an increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Last summer an effort was made to create a multinational naval force to escort oil tankers through the Gulf and Red Sea waters, however, many European allies of the US balked.
Iran’s internal dynamics are certain to play a large role in the coming weeks and months. As I spoke about this morning, the regime’s priority for the moment is likely centered on survival. Hence the moves to arrest many IRGC commanders who were seen as excessively loyal to Qasem Soleimani. With them out of the picture, Iran’s security apparatus will become a trustworthy instrument with loyalty to the regime and not simply one man. This is a signal that a thawing of US-Iran tensions could be coming in the future, and the regime wants to assure that its vaunted IRGC will not act on its own to stoke the flames.
Alas, it is time to move on to other hotspots around the world. Libya, and North Korea first and foremost. We will continue to monitor and discuss Iran in the coming weeks, but for now, with this crisis concluded, other topics can be highlighted and talked about.
The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.
As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.
Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.
On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.