Iran is surviving, in spite of Trump's 'maximum pressure'

Iran is surviving, in spite of Trump's 'maximum pressure'
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Tensions in the Persian Gulf remain high, but today Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will have presented to the United Nations in New York his “Hormuz Peace Initiative.” Allow for your jaw to drop even lower: In a speech in Tehran on Sunday, Rouhani said “the gist of [it] is love and hope.”

The flowery rhetoric obscures a hard fact. The Iranian leader is merely repeating a longstanding position of the Islamic regime in Tehran: “The security of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Sea of Oman is indigenous. Foreign forces could cause problems and insecurity for our nation and region.”

In other words, there is no role for the United States Navy, nor other foreign navies.

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Coming less than two weeks after the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s main Abqaiq processing plant and Khurais oil field, widely recognized as being orchestrated by Iran, Rouhani’s words show what only can be described as “chutzpah.” The attacks are merely the latest in a series of incidents that have destabilized the Gulf over the last five months — limpet mines on tankers at anchor, limpet mines on tankers at sea, drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations and on another oilfield.

The U.S. policy to force Tehran to make concessions on its nuclear program by curtailing its oil exports has been given the label “maximum pressure.” It is not hard to conclude that Tehran’s response to the policy merits the same title. Just who is winning is not clear. There are several fields of combat — diplomatic, economic, military — and political spin.

Last week, Jack Keane, retired four-star U.S. Army general and unofficial military adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE, told the BBC after the Abqaiq strike that “he had never seen the Iranians so inept.” In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. wrote: “The Trump sanctions are having their desired effect. … Our policy is working.” On Tuesday, in the same newspaper, Walter Russell Mead argued, based on an interview with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoErdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn Graham: I'm seeking to make Trump successful 'but not at all costs' Ex-Watergate prosecutor says evidence in impeachment inquiry 'clearly' points to Trump MORE, that "the [Iranian] regime is trapped. ... The mix of military restraint and sanctions resolve has worked well for Washington so far.”

That’s not the apparent view I discern of American allies in the Persian Gulf and across the world. Maybe our intelligence community has better sources in Iran, but as the Financial Times correspondent there reported in a story this month about reaction to the sacking of John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump job approval slips 2 points in Gallup poll Washington indecision compounded the Kurds' dilemma US Ambassador Sondland says Trump directed officials to work with Giuliani on Ukraine MORE as Trump's national security adviser: "Iran has still managed to bring in foreign currency through the sale of crude (oil) to unknown destinations and the export of non-oil goods to countries in the region. This has allowed for the importation of basic commodities and medicine. Supermarket shelves remain full and fuel is readily available at petrol stations.”

The Abqaiq attack on Saudi Arabia's oil industry was seen as the kiss of death to the idea that President Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart in New York, but who knows? In his remarks to the U.N.'s General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump said: "No responsible government should subsidize Iran's bloodlust. As long as Iran's menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted. They will be tightened." But he made no mention of military options or more sanctions than announced last week. Perhaps Rouhani’s expected speech could be interpreted as an end to “menacing behavior.”

But a warning for diplomacy: In much the way that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ended up being a document that recognized Iran’s nuclear program as much as it constrained it, any "Hormuz Peace Plan" could bequeath to Tehran rights in the strategic waterway that don’t have to be given. The legal types in the Iranian bureaucracy are as dangerous in their own way as their more obviously deadly counterparts in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And, despite his title and frequent appearances at military parades, Rouhani is not the top decision-maker in Iran and has no particular influence over foreign and defense policy. That role belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hates the United States and probably relishes the opportunity to get the better of it.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.