Rohani embarks on charm campaign in Europe while threatening neighbours

Iran is facing domestic problems and more sanctions would ignite new fires at home.
Sunday 08/07/2018
In a tight spot. Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks during a joint news conference at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on July 4. (AFP)
In a tight spot. Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks during a joint news conference at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on July 4. (AFP)

Iranian President Hassan Rohani appeared to threaten to disrupt oil shipments from neighbouring countries if Washington presses ahead with its promise to prevent the sale of Iranian oil.

The thinly veiled threats made July 3 at a media event in Zurich during the Iranian president’s charm offensive to get the Europeans to not follow along with US President Donald Trump’s promise to hit Iran with unprecedented sanctions.

This is not the first time Iran has threatened oil shipments from the Gulf. In 1984-88, the US Navy escorted dozens of oil tankers sailing Gulf waters while Iranian military vessels tried — and at times succeeded — to strike laden oil tankers.

Rohani’s comments were initially published on the Iranian presidential website and partially repeated at a news conference in Switzerland.

“The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran’s oil exports. They don’t understand the meaning of this statement, because it has no meaning for Iranian oil not to be exported, while the region’s oil is exported,” the website, president.ir, quoted Rohani as saying.

Iran’s contribution to the world oil market is quite important. It is the world’s fourth-largest producer, exporting more than 2 million barrels per day.

Preventing Iran from exporting oil is easier said than done and presents two potentially huge problems. First, stopping Iran from getting its oil out will create a shortage on the world market, a deficiency that Saudi Arabia told the White House it could fill. OK, that was an easy problem to solve, the next one may not be so simple.

Iran will not remain idle as the United States threatens its major source of income. Neither will it allow Saudi Arabia to pick up its share of the market. Iran will go to war to protect its interests if needed. This is a very serious and very frightening situation.

There are possibly two issues driving Rohani’s European tour, which included stops in Switzerland, Belgium and Austria. Why those three countries? Switzerland, Austria and Belgium are far from being the movers and shakers of the political world. The more tradition political powerhouses in Europe tend to be found in Paris and Berlin rather than Zurich, Vienna or Brussels.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said its minister would meet with representatives of France, Britain and Germany in Brussels and Vienna. Switzerland represents US interests in Iran because there are no diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran. Austria took over the rotating EU presidency on July 1 and the International Atomic Energy Agency has its headquarters in Vienna. This gives an idea what may be high on the Iranian president’s agenda: The nuclear issue, which is tied into the sanctions.

The nuclear deal has been the cornerstone of Rohani’s policy of greater openness with the West and the US move has seen him severely criticised by ultraconservatives at home. Washington’s decision paves the way for new US sanctions against Tehran, which will encompass businesses from third countries that operate in Iran.

Several foreign firms have announced they would cease Iranian activities because of the looming imposition of sanctions.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he would speak plainly with Rohani about Iran’s role in the Middle East, as Tehran continues to deny accusations it is destabilising the region.

Iran is facing domestic problems and more sanctions would ignite new fires at home. There have been protest marches across Iran in recent days and, for the first time since the 1979 revolution, the demonstrations have spread to other parts of Tehran, including the historic Grand Bazaar.

By striking and closing their shops and stalls on June 25, the merchants demonstrated to authorities their political disapproval of the situation and showed they carry financial clout by slowing commerce in the heart of Tehran to a standstill.

There is no doubt that, when the merchants in the bazaar went on strike, Rohani could ignore the importance of such action. For those who remember the role the bazaar played in ousting the shah, this expression of discontent by the bazaaris was not an encouraging sign. The older generation — people Rohani’s age — have not forgotten that those who helped put them in power can help get them out of power.

With the Iranian economy faltering, demonstrators have taken to the streets, reflecting a resentment of what they see as government squandering.

Washington’s decision on the nuclear agreement paves the way for new US sanctions against Tehran. This could trigger further domestic unrest. However, don’t expect the mullahs to face the mounting pressures without trying to export their problems to the rest of the region.

 

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