Admiral Michael G. Mullen, outgoing chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, in September warned of a lack of communication with Tehran. “We are not talking… so we don’t understand each other,” he said. “If something happens… it’s virtually assured we won’t get it right.”
Admiral Mullen’s idea of a “hotline” to avoid an accidental flare-up was played down in Washington and rejected by senior Iranian commanders, despite its common sense assertion: In the absence of understanding, messages are invariably misinterpreted. One theory over the alleged plot to blow up Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Washington ambassador, came from American journalist Gareth Porter: That Tehran was “sending a message” as to how it might respond if attacked. Quite how complex this message sending becomes is illustrated when Porter notes that undercover American agents’ sting operation against Mansour Arbabsiar — the Iranian-American facing criminal charges in the case — may also have constituted entrapment. The truth lies hidden somewhere in the smoke, fog and noise of US-Iranian relations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran in a CNN interview it would be “badly miscalculating” if it believed the US military withdrawal from Iraq, announced last month by President Obama, was evidence of diminishing US military commitment in the region. She had a point. While Washington is to withdraw almost all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year — the current level of 45,000 is already well down from a peak of 166,000 during the “surge” of 2007 — it still has 100,000 in Afghanistan and a considerable presence in the Persian Gulf, especially with the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
Yet Washington wants more sanctions. The mantra is familiar. They will, said Clinton, “send a strong message to Iran and further isolate it from the international community.”
Hence David Cohen, undersecretary at the US Treasury, has been lobbying in Europe. As well as the alleged assassination plot, he cited two reports: One due this month from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is expected to criticize Iran for inadequate explanations over its nuclear program, and another published last month by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Cohen raised the option of sanctioning Iran’s central bank. This is probably too radical a step for Europeans worried that freezing Tehran out of the global financial system could jeopardize its oil sales and send energy prices up, but they might follow the US in imposing sanctions against Iran Air and the port company, Tidewater Middle East. Washington has accused the two of carrying “illicit shipments” and defense supplies. While the US has long argued that both sanctions and its military build-up in the Persian Gulf “send a message” to Iran to end its nuclear program, Tehran believes Washington’s real aim is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Iranian politicians see sanctions as an alternative to talking, as coercion designed to force Iranian compliance.
The US message, linked to implicit or explicit threats, has been sent around the world. Washington has made it clear that countries and businesses trading with Iran may face severe penalties, especially through banking, and has targeted Tehran’s gasoline imports and crude oil sales, encouraging Tehran to curb gasoline consumption and increase refining.
With oil, Iran remains confident of finding buyers. But sanctions have had a deeper effect in keeping Iran’s gas underground. Despite reserves of 30 trillion cubic meters (m3) — surpassed only by Russia — Iran is a net gas importer, with an output of just 138.5 billion m3 last year.
Extracting and exporting gas requires advanced technology, especially in the most versatile means of transportation, liquefaction, and Iran’s joint projects with international majors floundered as companies like Total and Shell eventually decided they could no longer ignore Washington’s strong messages of disapproval.
Naturally, Iranian officials are loath to admit sanctions have hampered the country’s economy in case they communicate any weakening of the country’s resilience. They have no desire to send out the wrong signals.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, seems to have opted to label Western pressures as conspiracies and to wait for problems to pass. In reaction to the US furor over the alleged bomb plot he said: “The way to success is not to retreat from the enemy, not even one step.”
GARETH SMYTH has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran