President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Iran, which cost the US nothing, are placing the Islamic Republic under a degree of pressure it has never known. Pictured: President Trump talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House, on July 16, 2019. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Is the Islamic Republic collecting fresh “assets” with which to enter into a possible dialogue with the American “Great Satan”? The pattern of news related to Iran in the past few weeks may make “yes” a plausible answer. Tehran has already carried out a series of attacks on oil tankers in Fujairah and close to the Iranian Jask Peninsula. Its surrogates in Iraq have fired a number of rockets at targets connected with the US presence in that country. Tehran’s Yemeni surrogates, the Houthi militia, have fired a number of missiles to raise the tension without affecting the overall military situation. Last week the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized two British-flagged oil tankers, releasing one after a demonstration of force coupled with a stern warning.
Regarding the seized British tanker, Tehran has offered conflicting narratives. The Islamic Majlis (ersatz parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani says the tanker was seized in retaliation for the Brits seizing an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar that was trying to break European Union sanctions against Syria. However, President Hassan Rouhani’s spokesman says the two cases are not related and that the British tanker was seized for infringing the law of the sea, whatever that means.
In another register, Tehran has ordered the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah to “reinforce” its positions close to the ceasefire lines with Israel in both Lebanon and Syria. Moreover, on Monday Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide” of the regime, received a high-ranking delegation of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to evoke the possibility of one day praying together in the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. He also reassured the Hamas leaders that, despite Iran’s cash-flow problems caused by American sanctions, Tehran’s financial support to the group will continue.
To reinforce the impression that American sanctions have not forced Tehran to modify its behavior as the Trump administration demands, the Islamic Ministry of Security showed up with the sensational news that it had “smashed” a network of CIA agents who had infiltrated the Islamic Republic’s government structures and private sector outfits connected with it. The fact that the ministry’s account was full of holes and contradictions may indicate that the cloth yarn was woven to contribute to the tough image Tehran wishes to project just before it succumbs to pressure.
Initially, the ministry spoke of a network (shabakeh in Persian) supposedly controlled by the CIA from an unknown location. The ministry also claimed that the “network” was part of fresh efforts by Gina Haspel, named as CIA Director by President Donald Trump. Also according to the initial account, the agents in the “network” had received high level training in espionage techniques and were equipped with “the most advanced” machines for transmitting information.
In later accounts, however, the ministry insisted that the 17 “agents” acted individually and had absolutely no contact with one another and therefore, could not be regarded as a “network”. More importantly, the ministry claimed that most “agents” had been “fished” by the CIA with promises of US visas and work permits in America. In other words, the “agents” could not have been highly trained spies by any standards. Worse still, the ministry, forgetting its initial claim that Ms. Haspel had been the Mata Hari behind the Persian “network”, claimed that the agents had been recruited six years ago, long before Trump was in the White House and Haspel in Langley.
Thus, the 17 individuals involved could be regarded as hostages, adding to the 41 foreign and dual-national hostages that the Islamic Republic already holds.
A tougher profile, attacks on tankers and other soft targets, gesticulations by Hezbollah and Hamas, and more hostages are one aspect of the scheme that Tehran is currently working on. The other is a desperate attempt at appearing ready to enter into “constructive talks”. That yarn is marketed by Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is still retained to play Foreign Minister in Western forums and TV studios. Passing through New York, Zarif met Republican Senator Rand Paul to balance a meeting that he had held with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein in an earlier visit. According to good sources, Zarif also held two long meetings with two American businesspersons “interested in Iranian affairs.” All those who met Zarif must have obtained at least a nod and a wink from the White House.
As noted in a previous column, Tehran is already complying with several of the demands spelled out by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his famous 12-point desiderata. In New York, Zarif added the promise of addressing another demand, that the so-called “nuke deal” be rehashed to make limits on Iran’s nuclear program permanent rather than limited to 10, 15 or 25 years. That could be done, at least in part, by Tehran signing the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), something that the Islamic Republic had promised to do during Obama’s presidency but didn’t.
The Tehran game is based on a strategy that the French call “drowning the fish”. By creating or highlighting numerous issues, Tehran would avoid giving the impression of abject surrender. Some hostages could be released as a sign of goodwill. The seized British tanker could be returned as part of confidence-building measures. The supposed CIA spies may benefit from leniency rather than being summarily executed.
Trump’s sanctions, which cost the US nothing, are placing the Islamic Republic under a degree of pressure it has never known. This is why Khamenei, his huffing-and-puffing notwithstanding, is ready to do what he is told, provided he can save a minimum of face. His chief aim at present is to survive the rough patch created for him by Trump. That could be done if he is allowed to sell even a million barrels of oil a day to finance his pet projects and surrogates at home and abroad. Will Trump be tempted to declare victory and let the Islamic Republic off the hook at a time it is reeling under pressure?
We may know the answer early next month when the waivers issued by Trump to seven nations for nuclear cooperation with the Islamic Republic expire. If Trump refuses to renew the waivers, he would show that he is not prepared to accept a partial victory. At the same time, however, he would make it impossible for Iran to fully comply with the moribund “nuke deal”. A week after that will come the G7 summit in France, where the US and its closest allies will have to decide whether to let the Islamic Republic off the hook yet again, and, as always, in exchange for partial and largely cosmetic concessions.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.