Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to enact new sanctions against Iran amidst allegations of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) support for terrorist groups around the region. This latest round of sanctions comes attached to a bill that will also enact new sanctions against Russia, and will bizarrely add to those already issued on July 18th; a day after President Donald Trump ratified that Iran is in fact complying with the P5+1 nuclear deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has responded by declaring that these sanctions violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement made at the P5+1 negotiations in 2015. This comes at a tense time in the region, amidst reports of skirmishes between Iranian and U.S. military forces, and an escalating crisis amongst critical regional allies in the GCC, all of which will continue to test a somewhat untested American administration.
Relations between the United States and Iran, having seen an optimistic thaw in 2016, have now deteriorated rapidly since President Trump’s inauguration and a barrage of anti-Tehran rhetoric from his administration. The new administration has riled Iran with accusations of support for terrorism and breaches of the JCPOA nuclear deal, alongside a controversial programme of rapprochement with Saudi Arabia (whom had seen relations chill under the Obama administration).
The increasing tensions come as Iran also faces domestic political turbulence. President Rouhani, a reformist-minded leader who has sought to reintegrate Iran with the international community through the nuclear deal, is facing increasing pressure from hardline elements of Tehran’s political elite. President Trump’s repeated anti-Iranian rhetoric has raised concerns that Rouhani’s aspirations for growth driven by sanctions removal, economic reintegration and renewed foreign investment will be undeliverable, and that (as long-suspected by the more Hawkish hardliners) Washington is not to be trusted in such critical deals. Hardline conservative elements of Tehran’s political scene have already attempted to leverage the nation’s economic frustration to undermine President Rouhani’s reforms and the policy of global re-engagement, which has yet to bear tangible results for the average citizen, however Rouhani was still able to win victory in the latest elections despite growing pessimism.
Naval provocations such as these, which saw ten American Riverene-based sailors captured by IRGC forces in 2016, are likely to continue as tensions remain stressed.
Iran will likely be forced to retaliate against these new sanctions by its hawkish hardline bloc, heavily represented within the IRGC’s officer corps whose business interests are directly threatened by the sanctions. Retaliatory threats made by government officials following the announcement of fresh sanctions suggest that this will indeed be the case, however the specific nature of any Iranian retaliation has not yet been revealed. Previous sanctions prompted similar rhetoric and eventually resulted in Iran increasing funding to their missile development programme. Tehran has also recently launched a new missile design, for which Defence Minister Hossein Dehghani Poudeh has cited a weapons deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as justification. As such, a test launch of one the new weapons systems in the coming weeks appears to be the most likely form of retaliation. Additionally, Iran may further decrease its cooperation around the issue of returning (often arbitrarily) detained U.S. citizens and dual-nationals, and even the launching of symbolic sanctions against the U.S.
On the day the new sanctions were voted upon, an incident occurred in the Persian Gulf in which an Iranian vessel come within 150 metres of the U.S. patrol, resulting in several bursts of warning shots being fired. Naval provocations such as these, which saw ten American Riverene-based sailors captured by IRGC forces in an embarrassing incident in 2016, are likely to continue as tensions remain high. Any highly-charged situation involving hostile military forces operating in close proximity also increases the risk of miscalculation-driven escalation, which could see a negligible skirmish develop into a serious military engagement in a disturbingly short period of time. Additionally, the Levant-region conflict has seen numerous similar skirmishes between proxy and special forces of the two countries since the Trump inauguration. Iran’s latest efforts to establish sustainable logistical routes to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has resulted in increasing clashes between U.S. and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and in the regional vacuum that is likely to follow the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State militant group, Iranian moves to expand its influence will bring forth further confrontational risks.
Additionally, Iran continues to experience indirect tensions with the U.S.-allied GCC bloc. Earlier this week, the Bahraini government charged 60 suspects with attending IRGC training camps on the use of weapons and explosives. While this trial reflects a long-term pattern of spurious charges and repression that is overwhelmingly directed at Bahrain’s restive Shi’a population, it does appear to demonstrate a more recent trend that has seen the intensification of GCC opposition to Iranian influence across the region. The Bahrain crackdown is anticipated to continue alongside similar police operations in Saudi Arabia’s heavily-Shi’a Eastern Province, with reports of similar allegations of Iranian support for militant groups there.
Increased tensions between this mixture of the most influential powers in the region will exacerbate an already unusually high level of instability that is currently gripping an already restive region. In addition to cross-Gulf tensions, incoherent and obfuscated U.S. policy goals in the region will continue to confuse leaders on all sides and detract from Washington’s international credibility, especially when seen in the context of reneging on such a radically important agreement as the JCPOA deal.
This all comes alongside the GCC-Qatar crisis, in which the U.S. appears to be inconclusively split between Washington’s traditional GCC allies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and Qatar, host to America’s largest MENA military base at Al Udeid. Despite this, Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh and several tweets appearing to support the Saudi regime have emboldened the GCC with the perception that the U.S. is throwing its weight further behind the bloc. With the UAE having this week announced that it has now bought the country’s first oil shipment from the US to replace fuel previously purchased from Qatar, a likely entrenchment of the GCC’s position on Qatar appears to be in the works, bringing with it a potentially lengthy continuation of the crisis. While this divides much of Washington’s focus on the region, Qatar is being increasingly pushed into Iran’s strategic orbit. It must now be questioned whether Iran will be able to leverage another potential flash-point south of the Gulf to its advantage, and whether President Trump maintains the geopolitical finesse to manage such a development.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.
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Photo credit: Reza Dehshiri