Military tensions escalate showdown between US, Iran

In a warning to Iran, the United States sent the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group to the Arabian Gulf.
Sunday 09/12/2018
A file picture shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis at sea. (US Navy)
Choppy waters. A file picture shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis at sea. (US Navy)

ISTANBUL - Military tensions are escalating between the United States and Iran with Tehran boosting efforts to cushion the economic blow of Washington’s sanctions against Iran’s oil sector.

In a warning to Iran, the United States sent the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group to the Arabian Gulf, the first such deployment in eight months. The move followed the launch of a new Iranian destroyer, the Sahand, in the Gulf and threats by Iran’s leadership to close the Strait of Hormuz in case the United States tries to cut all Iranian oil exports.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned what he described as Iran’s testing of a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads as a violation of the agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran countered by announcing its intention to increase the range of its missiles.

The exchanges came as Iran vowed to keep its oil output at its current level of more than 1 million barrels per day, thereby securing an important source of revenue despite US sanctions that went into effect in early November and despite plans by fellow OPEC members to cut production to prop up prices.

Sanctions are affecting all aspects of life in Iran. Many Western companies withdrew from the country because Washington might bar them from the US market if they stay active in Iran. Consequences can be felt in sectors from the economy to health care. “Sanctions have jeopardised cancer research in Iran,” the Lancet medical journal said.

The sanctions are the centrepiece of a US plan to force Tehran to accept new talks about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its missile programme after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the existing nuclear agreement with Iran in May. Because several major buyers of Iranian oil balked at the sanctions, Washington has found it hard to isolate Tehran. Iran has said that it is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal and that its missile programme is not up for negotiation.

The European Union is determined to save the nuclear pact and is drawing up plans to boost the role of the euro — as opposed to the US dollar — in international trade and to find ways to keep trade routes with Iran open.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran and the European Union had agreed on a so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV) system to work around US sanctions. Brussels, however, is struggling to find a host for the SPV because EU countries are concerned about repercussions from the Trump administration.

Critics of the United States’ Iran policy say Washington is fanning the flames of conflict with Iran because Trump’s real aim might not lie in new talks with the Iranians but in regime change in Tehran.

Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, pointed out that the Trump administration exaggerated the significance of the latest Iranian missile test. “Perhaps Pompeo cared less for legalisms because he is more invested in the all-out campaign to undermine the Iranian leadership,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an analysis posted on the think-tank’s website. He described the US stance as a “policy of going after Iran on all fronts.”

Publicly at least, the Tehran leadership’s response has been one of defiance. Iranian President Hassan Rohani hinted that Iran could disrupt oil shipments through the Gulf if Washington tried to halt all Iranian oil exports.

“America should know that we are selling our oil and will continue to sell our oil and they are not able to stop our oil exports,” Rohani said in a televised speech. “If one day they want to prevent the export of Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Gulf.”

Analysts said it is too early to say whether Tehran will change its positions on the nuclear issue, the missile programme or regional policies seen as aggressive by the United States and its partners.

“I don’t really think people believed Iran would fold quickly,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said via e-mail. He added Trump’s policy was “showing promise because Iran hasn’t pulled out of the nuclear deal” but was “being deprived of considerable funds.” O’Hanlon said he did not know “how this ends.”

Daniel Brumberg, a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said the sanctions had the potential to shake the Tehran regime to the core.

“The deeper they bite, the harder it could become to prevent factional struggles from escalating in ways that could test or even shake loose the political and social foundations of the Islamic Republic,” Brumberg wrote in an analysis for the Arab Centre. It remained to be seen if efforts by Tehran and the EU to work around Trump’s sanctions could be successful, he added.