17 October 2019

Sanctioned, Iran fights back with a hybrid war

Ştefan Oprea

On July 14th, China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, Great Britain and the United States of America, together with the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran were signing, in Vienna, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was going to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful and it will be an important step in nuclear non-proliferation.

Image source: Mediafax

A short retrospective of that moment reveals some aspects that should be analyzed and connected with the current situation.

During time, Iran’s ayatollahs have developed the nuclear research and tried to bring the big powers at the negotiation table highlighting the difficulty of international sanctions, all in order to keep their own governmental theocratic system. Once Iran abandons its nuclear programs, if they ever had one, the Islamic Republic will no longer be the outcast among the nations.

Iran would have taken its big regional power role back, something they lost after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, becoming, again, a great international actor. From this perspective, the agreement with Iran, far from the “nuclear ambitions”, was an opportunity to change the strategic equilibrium in the entire Middle East.

At that time, the political estimations in the area were highlighting:

-on short term, the Vienna Agreement was tipping over the power balance in the Middle East, increasing the strategic rivalry among Ayatollahs and Sunnis, Shiites and Israelis;

-Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, thought that this step will offer Teheran more opportunities and resources to support its regime and regional allies;

-from a skeptical perspective, Jordan’s king Abdullah the second  was afraid that releasing the economic resources, along with Teheran’s legitimization to become the regional giant, would offer him the opportunity to use any crisis situation to reach its political and military objectives;

-in Yemen, the reaction to Iran’s new status was prompt. The forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by the Saudis, have launched a massive bomb, targeting the Aden city (which was at the entry in Bab el Mandeb Strait and offers access to Suez Canal), adding that they will do everything to control it;

-in Bahrain, whose population is mostly Shiite, the Iran’s risks are strongly felt, due to the internal opposition, supported by the majoritarian population, but which does not have the rights and positions of the Sunni minority, which opposed the monarchy during the 2011 “Arab Spring”;

As for regional diplomacy, the Vienna Agreement redesigned the map, distributing it in four camps: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. Given this geopolitical context, the Sunni concerns, predicated or not, have increased interests’ convergence between Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf and Israel. Saudi Arabia, as leader of the Sunni camp, has, on the opposed side, a strong Iran, politically and financially speaking; and Turkey stays in between.

Therefore, the final purpose was a new reginal balance and, until that happens, the establishment of a “modus vivendi” to ensure a peaceful climate to manage the crisis. Syria will be the main scene, where the terror of the Islamic State, which was the spearhead of the Sunni bloc in fighting Shiite expansionism, cannot be controlled and stopped without a complex agreement, especially with the forces being loyal to Assad’s regime.

The agreement had financially improved Iran, admitting, at the same time, its “right” to limitedly enrich the uranium. This is another reason to pour its nuclear ambitions, its support for terror and the construction of intercontinental missiles, as well as a campaign to dominate or destroy the other states in the region.

The concession (2017) and withdrawal of the Trump administration (2018), unilaterally, from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran, had huge effects on Iran’s terror funding and the increase of its influence in almost all of Middle East.

EU’s attempts, together with other signatory states (China, France, Germany, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, plus the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran) to find concrete solution to the issues emerged after US’s unilateral withdrawal from this agreement and the re-imposition of sanctions, raised upon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, seem to be difficult to be materialized when trying to find concrete solutions to support its campaigns against US sanctions.

In all this time (2017-2018), Iran continued to follow Teheran’s provisions, but the situation was getting worse and even threatening by 2019.

Teheran started to break some of the limits imposed to its nuclear program, by enriching the uranium above the limits, then overpassing the uranium supply, which was not that enriched. Furthermore, the Iranians were threatening with doing even more if the European nations would not diminish US’s actions.

There are some unanswered questions, whose answers could bring light to this situation and the insecurity escalation in the area.

What made Iran, after following the treaty for so long, to gradually break its provisions?

As long as the overrides issued to the seven countries to buy Iranian oil (India, China, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Greece and Italy) and Taiwan were respected, the Iranian nuclear program seemed to be under control.

The US economic sanctions from the last year, along with the elimination of the overrides issued to the eight countries to buy Iranian oil, have brought dramatic costs for Iran’s economy. It was all made hoping that Teheran will surrender against these sanctions from increasing the uranium and developing ballistic missiles, allowing UN inspectors to watch all sites in the countries, stopping the support for Hezbollah and Hamas and withdrawing all Iranian forces from Syria.

It is less likely for Iran to come to compliance. Consequently, from that moment, the Iranian government announced their decision to stop following the JCPOA key component and to start increasing the uranium and the stock, above agreement’s limits.

Moreover, pressured by the American administration, Iran fights back with the same measure. Sabotaging the oil fields and limiting, even blocking, the transit through the Hormuz Strait, the continuous support for Houthi rebels from Yemen, with drones and missiles, to strike the airports and oil fields from Saudi Arabia, supporting the Shiite militias from Iraq to threaten country’s religious and political vulnerable balance etc…

What’s Iran purpose with this gradual breach of the JCPOA provisions?

Firstly, getting the necessary time to produce the fissionable material for the military. Even if the rate is quite alert and Iran’s capacity to make its enriched uranium stock is increasing a lot, the possibility to create a nuclear weapon remains, still, a daring objective.

The insecurity feeling, the less rational faith in anti-Iran conspiracies or in an imminent American invasion, the national pride of a former cultural, scientific, religious and political thinking center for centuries, the use of their nuclear issue as tool of the partisan internal policy and, not least, the fight for influence in the region, are increasing the will to get this nuclear deterrence.

What’s at stake in the Hormuz Strait?

A 21-miles length maritime canal, which previously connected the Arab and Persian civilizations with the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Asia, is now connecting the Indian Ocean with the Persian Gulf. The Hormuz Strait ensures all the maritime traffic in the Gulf countries (Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), rich in energetic sources, precisely, 21% of the world petroleum. At the same time, the strait separated Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which have strong military connections with the United States. The last conflicts in the Hormuz Strait have emerged after Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear agreement, in May 2018, and Iran was threatening to close the Strait to take back against the US sanctions.

As it became a conflict area during the war between Iran and Iraq, in the 1980’s, now it becomes, again, the center of attention, thanks to how Iran uses the hybrid actions (unconventional tactics which are too sublet to start military reprisals) against oil fields, regardless of the countries they belong to. Through a hybrid war, Iran seem to have already started to disturb the trade fluxes through straits and to raise diplomatic stakes.

Although it denies the involvement in these actions, it seems that Iran has a pressure over the Asian powers, China and Japan, to make them convince the Trump administration that cooling down the sanctions would eliminate the oil and gases export, which are vital resources for Asia.

What’s the effect of the “sanctions war”?

As the “sanctions war” is almost impossible to win, pressuring the Europeans could offer an economic compensation to US sanctions. With a clear objective ahead, Teheran wants, in terms of the relation with Europe, an economic compensation of the US sanctions, but also the pressure of Europeans on the Trump administration, to ease its sanctions policy. Furthermore, Iranians know really well that the Europeans are afraid that the complete elimination of JCPOA will inevitably lead to a conflict, something unaccepted both by Europe and the entire international community.

Iran’s reactions to the economic sanctions, although it seems to be enough supported in the Hormuz Strait, it does not have the expected effect on the energetic resources consumers that use this transit. The global oil and natural gases prices did not modify and, furthermore, they have decreased in the first six months of 2019, despite the tensions in the Gulf.

From this point of view, the guarantee that the sanctions, more and more dramatic, will end Iran’s actions in the region remains a desideratum. However, for now, it seems that these have shaken the Teheran regime strongly.

A new approach in sanctions’ war

The attack on the Saudi oil fields, from September 14th, changes the actions fundamentally. World’s energetic infrastructure becomes even more vulnerable than everyone previously thought. Affecting the Saudi economy harshly, as halving the oil production is only 5% of the global production and an increase of the oil price, for a few days, with 20%, the attack, although assumed by the Houthi rebels from Yemen (supported by Iran), shows that the “fight” is not between the main actors, but through proxy, dislocated in region’s countries and which do not have the possibility to directly make them responsible.

Instead of conclusion.

It is obvious that:

- Iran has the ability to answer to US and its allies pressures, and the economic sanctions do not but intensify the tension in the region, through an aggressive and destabilizing behavior from Teheran;

- Washington’s military answer can have strategic negative consequences on long-term for the regional security and the global economic interests;

-although getting US out of the nuclear threat aimed at changing Iran’s regional behavior, the reality showed that it did not but increase the security challenge coming from Iran;

- the European efforts to offer Iran methods to continue to export its products, despite the American sanctions, can simply not work now.

Translated by Andreea Soare