Iran, Backed Into a Corner

Now it needs outside help if it’s going to stand up to the U.S.

By Jacob L. Shapiro

Iran and the United States enjoyed a brief rapprochement when they signed the Iran nuclear deal, but the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement backed Tehran into a corner. For months, political infighting and public unrest over the country’s poor economic performance has considerably weakened Iran’s regional position. Now it seems rival political factions have come together to deliver a coherent Iranian response. And just in time: The first wave of U.S. sanctions will be reintroduced on Aug. 6. (The second and final wave will follow 90 days later, on Nov. 4.)

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a speech on Saturday that he supported a policy of blocking regional oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz if Iranian trade partners bowed to U.S. pressure to stop buying Iranian oil. President Hassan Rouhani followed that with his own eyebrow-raising speech on Sunday in which he echoed Khamenei’s threat and warned the U.S. about “play[ing] with the lion’s tale.” (Neither leader was specific about how Iran intends to close the strait, but at least they’re on the same page.) U.S. President Donald Trump’s threatening tweets late Sunday have grabbed the headlines, but it was Iran that started the war of words. In the wake of Trump’s reply, Iran’s chief of staff accused the U.S. of preparing to attack Iran, while a commander of the Basij paramilitary force accused it of psychological warfare. Iran’s foreign minister, in a clear message to the U.S., tweeted that Iran had lasted millennia and had seen empires fall, ending with a warning (mimicking Trump’s own threat): “BE CAUTIOUS!”

Iran’s political struggles are notoriously opaque, and the weekend’s developments are not clear-cut. While Rouhani, the president who engineered the rapprochement on Iran’s end, is talking more like a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC has been noticeably silent. Indeed, an aide to the supreme leader had to deny on Saturday that the commander of the IRGC was going to be replaced. If the Iranian government is revving up to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, it’s hard to figure out how that would mean a shake-up of the IRGC. It’s unclear why the denial was necessary – perhaps Rouhani is attempting to use his swing toward hawkishness to eliminate rivals. Whatever the case may be, it’s premature to say Iran’s newfound internal political coherence will endure.

Even so, no matter what faction emerges on top, whether by consensus or power grab, it is becoming clear that at this point Iran has relatively few options and has been forced into the arms of Russia and China. The logical starting point is Russia. On July 11, a few days before the Helsinki summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khamenei dispatched his top foreign policy adviser to Moscow. The objective may have been to get the two countries on the same page, implying that they have been coordinating their moves since the summit.

For Moscow, the name of the game is leverage. This is the second time in recent years Russia has looked to the Middle East for leverage over Washington. Russia’s first attempt, of course, was to parlay its intervention in Syria into considerations in Eastern Europe, specifically Ukraine. For the price of having propped up Bashar Assad, whose forces have been critical to the defeat of the Islamic State, Russia hoped the U.S. might be willing to compromise on Ukraine. In the end, Syria was not important enough to the U.S. to bargain, but Iran may be a different story. If Russia can demonstrate the ability to keep Iran in line, the U.S. may be willing to deal. If nothing else, encouraging Iran’s defiance raises the price of oil, which is good for Russia.

China is Iran’s other option. Beijing seems willing to go toe to toe with the U.S., at least for a while, as it assesses the damage from the burgeoning trade spat. China has given no indication that it will stop importing oil from Iran for fear of potential U.S. sanctions. If anything, it looks poised to increase its purchases, especially if the price is depressed because of the barriers around Western markets. For China, too, this could translate into leverage when dealing with the United States. At the very least, it’s cheap oil in a region China will be drawn toward more as its import needs grow.

Iran doesn’t want to be a pawn, but that will be the price of aligning itself more closely with Russia and China, and for Tehran, that’s better than kowtowing to the United States. The U.S. made the first move when it canceled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and now Iran has shown it has no intention of backing down. The next move belongs to Washington, and it will probably involve Moscow and Beijing.

Like in the North Korea situation, pure interest would dictate that the U.S. defuse the Iran issue, or at least deal with it in such a way so as not to improve Russia’s or China’s position. But in U.S. politics, the Iran issue is hostage to more than pure geopolitical interests. Whatever happens next, the first true ripples of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA are becoming visible, and the U.S. faces hard decisions about how to prioritize its wide-ranging foreign policy imperatives.

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