Despite tough talk, sanction-hit Iran tries to avoid confrontation with US
WASHINGTON/ TEHRAN--Despite signs of increased tensions and a public war-of-words between leaders, the US and Iran are moving away from the brink of direct military confrontation as Tehran scrambles for a way out of another costly crisis, according to recent reports.
The change comes as Iran, hard-hit by US sanctions, the decline in oil revenue and the coronavirus pandemic, looks to avert another obstacle that could deepen public unrest at home and further alienate it from European countries ahead of a crucial UN vote in October.
A UN arms embargo on the Islamic Republic is set to expire in October, but the US has vowed to do everything it can to see the sanction extended, including by taking it to a vote in the UN Security Council.
The US compounded Iran’s problems by imposing another round of sanctions on the country on Wednesday, targeting top government and military officials, including the interior minister, over human rights abuses.
“The United States will continue to hold accountable Iranian officials and institutions that oppress and abuse their own people,” said a statement by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Publicly, Iran has attempted to put on a brave face, shrugging off new US sanctions as “fruitless and repetitive” and defying Washington’s warnings against its naval activities in the Gulf and oil shipments to Venezuela. On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei let off a string of familiar insults against the US, accusing the country of “war-mongering” and warning that its forces would be expelled from Iraq and Syria. On Wednesday, Khamenei lashed out as US ally Israel, vowing to support “any nation or group that fights…the Zionist regime.”
At the same time, however, Iran is treading carefully in its zones of influence and even extending what some say are olive branches to the US, the New York Times reported.
In Iraq, where Iran’s proxy militias have repeatedly attacked US forces, there are signs of cooling tensions. Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iran-backed Badr militia, reportedly promised Iraq’s incoming prime minister to cease aggressive action against US interests in the country. While some militia attacks have continued, including a recent missile assault in Iraq’s diplomatic Green Zone, there have been no new attacks directly targeting US presence.
Iran also conceded to the nomination of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi, a US-trained former intelligence chief who has taken steps to bring Iran-backed militias under state control.
Kadhimi’s ascent to power comes after months of mass protests in Iraq against government corruption and foreign interference, with many pointing the finger at Iran for furthering sectarian conflict in the country.
There are also indications that Iran is scaling back its presence in war-torn Syria, where it has long offered support to President Bashar Assad.
“Iran is significantly reducing the scope of its forces in Syria and even evacuating a number of bases,” Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said at a recent address.
“Though Iran has begun the withdrawal process from Syria, we need to complete the work. It’s in reach.”
In another sign Iran fears an escalation with the US, it has steered clear of aggression in Gulf waters used by the US and its allies after it was blamed for a “dangerous and provocative” incident that could lead to a direct confrontation with American naval forces.
Last month, Iranian vessels edged close to US Navy and Coast Guard ships in the Gulf, prompting warnings from US President Donald Trump that any Iranian ships harassing US vessels would be fired upon.
Iran was also blamed for attacks last year on US-allied tankers in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a narrow shipping route that is central to the Gulf’s oil economy.
While Iran has remained set on its foreign policy vision, its recent limited moves to prevent US blowback reflect its growing domestic problems, lack of international support and weakened grip in the Middle East after the US took it out its top military commander in January.
“Iran is redefining its regional policies after Gen. Suleimani’s assassination,” Mohamad Hossein Malaek, a seasoned Iranian diplomat and former ambassador to China, wrote in Iranian Diplomacy magazine in April. “It’s reshuffling its cards, it’s reassessing its capabilities, and it has entered the arena with a new perspective and plan.”