September 28, 2020

IntelBrief: U.S. Ramps up Pressure on Tehran

Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Bottom Line up Front

  • In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration is increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran’s regime. 
  • A September Executive Order sanctioning arms sales to Iran, will not deter Chinese or Russian sales to Iran. 
  • New sanctions on Iranian arms entities will have a negligible effect on the operations of these entities. 
  • The Trump administration is attempting to increase pressure on Iran’s regional proxies, particularly the Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi Shia militias.

About one month before President Donald Trump faces U.S. voters again, his Administration is doubling down on its ‘maximum pressure’ strategy on Iran, attempting to demonstrate that Trump is confronting one of the country’s most persistent nemeses. In so doing, the Administration is highlighting its 2018 decision to exit the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which the Administration argues provided Iran with the financial resources to support terrorism throughout the region. In August, the Administration failed to persuade the U.N. Security Council to extend a U.N. ban on arms transfers to and from Iran which, under U.N. Resolution 2231 (enacted as part of the nuclear deal), is scheduled to expire on October 18. Insisting the embargo must not lapse, on September 19 the United States declared that it had used its rights in Resolution 2231 to trigger a ‘snap back’ of all U.N. sanctions, including the arms embargo. Other U.N. Security Council members - including the European countries, Russia, and China, all seeking to preserve the nuclear agreement - overwhelmingly opposed the U.S. announcement on the grounds that the United States had left the nuclear deal in 2018. The United Nations is not recognizing or implementing the snap back, leaving in place a disagreement with the United States over whether U.N. sanctions are back in force.  

Insisting that the United States would enforce U.N. sanctions, President Trump issued an Executive Order on September 21 sanctioning any entity or person that sells, or negotiates to sell, arms to Iran. However, the Order largely restated the provisions of the 2017 ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA) that is already in force. Concurrently, the Treasury Department sanctioned two dozen Iranian military and missile entities and persons, even though those named operate outside the global financial system and will not be affected by any U.S. sanctions designations. The new Executive Order and sanctions designations are unlikely to deter Russia or China from completing new arms deals with Tehran after the arms embargo formally expires on October 18, 2020. Iran’s shopping list with both nations includes combat aircraft, tanks, submarines, cruise and short-range missile technology, and naval patrol craft. The European Union refuses to sell arms to Iran, a policy that is unlikely to change. A significant remaining factor that might limit Iran’s new purchases of arms is its relative lack of funds, and Iran’s financial resources have definitively been diminished by the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, as well as Tehran’s struggles to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Another component of the Administration’s pre-election reinforcement of its Iran policy has been to renew pressure on Iran’s allies and proxies. It was reported in late September that the Administration is considering designating the Houthis in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Iran arms the Houthis against the Republic of Yemen Government and its Persian Gulf supporters. The designation would preclude U.S. transactions with the Houthis, but such transactions do not occur anyway. Yet, the designation could cause international aid organizations to cease their dealings with the Houthis, compounding the humanitarian effects of the Yemen conflict. Those within the Administration opposing a Houthi FTO designation also argue that naming it as a terrorist group could complicate a political settlement to ultimately bring the conflict to an end. These potential effects might, as they did in 2018 when this step was last considered, lead the Administration to decide against following through with the designation.  

Also in late September, the Trump administration placed pressure on its ally, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to accelerate efforts to restrain Iran-backed Shia militias that regularly attack U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly sent Kadhimi a letter in which he threatened to close the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad unless Kadhimi deployed Iraqi forces in an attempt to defeat the anti-U.S. militias. The closure ultimatum represented significant pressure on Kadhimi to take that step, lest he be devoid of significant external support. Perhaps because the Trump administration is drawing down its force in Iraq, there are no indications that Kadhimi is willing to risk an all-out challenge to Tehran.