Despite Instex transaction, US-Iran tensions endure amid pandemic

Tehran reiterated its rejection of American assistance.
Monday 06/04/2020
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi speaks at a press conference in Tehran.  (DPA)
Heated words. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi speaks at a press conference in Tehran. (DPA)

The fight against the global coronavirus surge has failed to lower tensions between the United States and Iran over their competing agendas in Iraq.

In a new war of words, both sides accused each other of aggression and threatened military action in Iraq. The new tensions put a damper on speculations that the first deal between the EU and Iran under a special trade mechanism set up to bypass US sanctions could mark a step towards resurrecting the nearly collapsed nuclear deal with Iran.

Pro-Iranian forces have attacked US troops in Iraq on several occasions in recent months, partly in revenge for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, by the US in January. The Iranian attacks prompted US air strikes on pro-Iranian groups in Iraq and Syria.

Rocket attacks were reported early Monday on the site of American oil field service company Halliburton in southern Iraq, the first such attack on US energy interests in Iraq in months. There was no claim of responsibility by suspicion focused on pro-Iran militias.

The United States, concerned that Iranian influence over Iraq could grow further, also deployed Patriot air defence missiles in Iraq, prompting Iran to warn of consequences and demand a US withdrawal. Tehran’s strategic goal is to push the US out of the Middle East altogether. Many of its Arab neighbours suspect Iran of harbouring expansionist ambitions.

US President Donald Trump said on April 1 that Iran would pay a “heavy price” in the event of further attacks on US troops. He tweeted that “upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by telling Trump he should not listen to the “usual warmongers” in Washington.

“Iran starts no wars but teaches lessons to those who do,” Zarif tweeted.

The Iranian posturing comes as Tehran tries to cement its influence in Iraq in the face of growing opposition in Baghdad.

There are divisions between Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as between pro-Sistani and pro-Iranian groups within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq, journalist Mehmet Alaca wrote in a blog post for the London School of Economics on April 3.

Iranian military circles “had planned for the PMF to be the dominant force in Iraqi politics, similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Alaca wrote, adding that “pro-Sistani groups have sought to limit the influence of Iran.”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said Trump’s warning was intended to deter Iran but also reflected differences within the US administration.

“Trump’s tough talk on Iran is to pre-empt any Iranian inspired attacks against US forces in Iraq and reflects the US president’s attempt to balance two views on dealing with Tehran inside his administration,” Macaron said in a message in response to questions. “The first sees tougher measures to force the Iranian regime back to the negotiation table and the second believes those measures could potentially pose a risk for US forces in Iraq.”

Macaron added that, while Trump seemed “less inclined to hit Iranian targets” if Tehran does not strike first because Iran is struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak, the calculations of the leadership in Tehran appeared to be unaltered by the pandemic.

“The coronavirus does not seem to alter Iran’s plan to keep pressure on US forces in Iraq since the killing of Qassem Soleimani last January as Tehran attempts to force the US hand in the region as a leverage for Washington to lift sanctions on Iran,” Macaron said.

Iran is the coronavirus hot spot in the Middle East, reporting more than 60,000 cases. Over 3,700 people have already died. The US has around 340,000 infections, more than any other country worldwide, as well as almost 10,000 deaths.

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi reiterated Tehran’s rejection of Washington’s offer for humanitarian assistance.

“Iran has never asked and will not ask America to help Tehran in its fight against the outbreak … But America should lift all its illegal unilateral sanctions on Iran,” Mousavi said in a televised news conference.

Iran says the struggle against the coronavirus has been made more difficult by US sanctions. International experts also blamed Iran’s lack of adequate restrictive policies to contain the spread of the epidemic.

Instex, a trade mechanism set up by Britain, France and Germany to keep commercial ties with Iran alive despite US sanctions, could be an instrument that some European nations use to send more medical supplies to Iran.

The first successful Instex transaction occurred on March 31, more than a year after Britain, France and Germany announced the creation of the trade mechanism.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Instex agreement involved the shipment of blood-treatment equipment by a German company and that the transaction had been in preparation for several months. That would suggest that the Instex transaction was not related to the coronavirus pandemic, as the first coronavirus case in Iran was registered on February 19.

Tehran has seen exports and imports fall drastically since Trump re-introduced sanctions after withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Trump wants Iran to accept stricter rules for the nuclear programme, to curb its ballistic missile programme and to stop its aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, but European powers are trying to save the JCPOA.