Two comments last week highlight the dangerous security impasse in which Iran and the U.S. find themselves. The first was from Iran’s spiritual leader, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that maritime security will remain at risk if its oil exports continue to be compromised. The second was from U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that sanctions may be applied on any country that helps the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya 1 as it makes its way back to Iran through the Mediterranean, having been released by the U.K. overseas territory of Gibraltar.
“Iran’s view is now that the U.S. will not launch the full-scale military attack that was previously expected, that the U.S. is increasingly isolated in its actions against Iran among its allies in Europe and even in the U.K.,” a senior source who works closely with Iran’s Petroleum Ministry told OilPrice.com last week. “At the same time, Iran believes it can lever the U.S. back into a newly renegotiated nuclear deal involving the removal of all sanctions,” he added.
Up until a couple of months or so ago, the U.S. was actively considering a full-scale military operation against Iran and was “98 per cent ready” for such an all-out attack, according to senior political sources in Washington and London spoken to by OilPrice.com last week. “The remaining two percent involved the final movement of men and materiel into attack positions and finalising the technology and software involved,” said one. “At that point, [John] Bolton [U.S. National Security Advisor] was the dominant voice in [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s ear, and this meant moving at least 120,000 troops into position to augment the [U.S.S Abraham Lincoln aircraft] carrier group that was already in place.”
“At about the same point, though, some of the President’s very close longstanding personal advisers and very senior CIA figures persuaded him that it would be an utter disaster, both militarily and economically, given the scale of the Iranian military and the terrain involved, its ability to launch guerrilla warfare anywhere in the world through its military proxies Hezbollah and Hamas and others, and its ability to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz,” one of the sources added. “In short, it was put to him that such a [full scale] military attack on Iran would lead to consequences potentially of a least the same length as the Afghanistan conflict and of at least the severity of Islamic State’s peak power,” he added.
As it now stands, the U.S. side is still split. On the one hand, there are the ultra-hawks Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence, the latter of whom notably said that: “The world missed an opportunity last time to confront the regime, but not this time.” Their less war-centric remarks on the subject still find backing from Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, OilPrice.com understands.
He and the lesser hawks still prefer the option currently being used of changing the regime in Iran by crippling its economy to such a degree that popular unrest removes the current power structures in the country, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). To this end, the past few weeks have seen the U.S. end all waivers on importing oil from Iran, designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation, and sanction 14 individuals and 17 entities linked to Iran’s shadowy Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (‘SPND’ initialism in Farsi).
Senior political sources in Washington have highlighted to OilPrice.com that the SPND, working together with the IRGC, has become quite the expert in continuing its nuclear weapons research under the cover of a range of quickly-changing front companies. These can operate unhindered in the international business community by pretending that they are engaged in legitimate non-sanctioned business activity, including accessing traditional finance, credit and banking facilities.
Opposing Bolton and the other hawks in the U.S. are some of the most senior figures in the U.S. intelligence community. One of these, Dan Coats, left his position as Director of National Intelligence U.S. National Intelligence – purportedly over differences with others in the Trump administration over Russia and North Korea – but also shortly after even he testified to a Senate Committee prior to the withdrawal of the U.S from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal that there was no indication that Iran was attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and that Tehran remained in compliance with the deal.
Another notable exception to the pro-attack view, OilPrice.com understands, is the CIA’s Head of Iran Mission Center, Michael D’Andrea. Known as ‘the Dark Prince’ for his work in the U.S.’s sharp-end counter-terrorism operations after the ‘9/11’ attacks, and even the key figure in organising the elimination of one of Hezbollah’s leaders, Imad Mougniyeh, in Damascus, in 2008 – when D’Andrea was Head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (from 2006) – he has voiced concerns over such an overt military strategy.
According to various intelligence analysts spoken to by OilPrice.com, D’Andrea is in favour of dialogue with Iran’s non-IRGC leadership. He is even said to be in favour of talks with Iran’s foremost military leader and the architect of its strategy to create and sustain a ‘crescent of Shia power’ running from Lebanon and Syria through to Iraq and Yemen through asymmetric warfare tactics, the long-serving head of Iran’s al-Quds (‘Jerusalem’) Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani.
The weapons that Iran could use in an asymmetric war are considerable, including further upsetting oil flows (and thus the broader economy and the all-important gasoline prices in the U.S.), undermining the U.S.’s plans in Iraq and Turkey by destabilising the Kurdish populations of each, and increasing tensions between the U.S., China and Russia. They also include fracturing the U.S.’s relationships with its NATO partners in Europe, and upping the tempo of direct attacks against the U.S.’s principal partner in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, through its Houthi allies, who control the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and much of the north of the country.
“Trump is isolated in his position on the Saudi actions in Yemen against the Houthis already, which Iran knows, but by taking the war directly into Saudi sovereign territory, as indicated that they can do at will by the drone attack on the major Shaybah oilfield [which produces around 1 million barrels of oil per day] and refinery complex, this position of backing the Saudis becomes more and more untenable,” the Iran source told OilPrice.com.
Iran is looking to push its advantage, the source exclusively told OilPrice.com last week, by agreeing to the opening of a Houthi embassy in Tehran, manned initially by 25 Houthi staff. This follows the unofficial appointment in the last few days of Ibrahim Mohammed Mohammed Al-Dailami as an ambassador ‘for the republic of Yemen to the Islamic Republic of Iran’, according to Houthi media sources. “This is all part of [General] Soleimani’s strategy of ‘a thousand short daggers making a thousand cuts against the U.S. for as long it sanctions us [Iran],” the source added.
Isolating the U.S. from Europe has long been at the core of this Iran strategy and the recent vetoing by the U.K. of the U.S. ‘suggestion’ to detain the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya 1 points to a much deeper opposition to the current U.S. strategy on Iran by the key European states. This has been the case form the very moment that the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA.
This was made worse by the recent revelation by the U.K.’s former ambassador to the U.S., Sir Kim Darroch – that has been disputed by Trump’s team – that Trump abandoned the nuclear deal just to spite former President Barack Obama. Obama was not only the architect of the deal but also a figure who Trump has personally despised since Obama ridiculed him at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, a key catalyst in Trump’s deciding to run for president in the first place, according to multiple reports.
When there were just rumours that the U.S. was going to withdraw from the JCPOA, the European Union’s (E.U.) foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, stated: “This [the JCPOA] is not a bilateral agreement,... so it is clearly not in the hands of any president of any country in the world to terminate [it],...The President of the United States has many powers, but not this one.” After the U.S. withdrew from the deal last May, the E.U. invoked the ‘Blocking Statute’ that effectively bans European companies from following the U.S.’ sanctions on Iran. Concomitant with this, Mogherini said that Brussels would not let the JCPOA deal with Tehran die, adding that: “We are encouraging small and medium enterprises in particular to increase business with and in Iran as part of something that for us is a security priority.”
The then-German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, added at that time that: “We also have to tell the Americans that their behaviour on the Iran issue will drive us Europeans into a common position with Russia and China against the U.S.A.” Shortly afterwards, the E.U. – under the leadership of Germany – moved to solve the problem of how to deal with payments accruing from business between the E.U. and Iran by creating the Instrument for Trade and Exchanges (INSTEX).
By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com
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