The recent rise in tensions was caused by the attacks on four oil tankers off the UAE coast on May 12, along with simultaneous twin attacks on a strategic oil pipeline in the heartland of Saudi Arabia. Those attacks were preceded by months of threats by Iranian officials to disrupt their neighbors’ oil exports. At the same time, Iran increased its destabilizing activities in the region, especially via Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Houthi militia of Yemen. In late May, the Arab coalition supporting the government of Yemen announced that the Houthis had launched more than 225 ballistic missile and 155 drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, targeting civilians and civilian structures, including oil installations.
A few days later, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official Mohammed Saleh Jokar was defiant. He told the semi-official Fars news agency: “Even our short-range missiles can easily reach American warships in the Gulf.” He repeated an illusion that some Iranian officials had expressed before, saying: “America cannot afford the costs of a new war, and the country is in a bad situation in terms of manpower and social conditions.” He overlooked the fact that Iran can ill afford or withstand a confrontation with the US.
The enhanced military preparedness of the US and its regional allies was in response to these and similar threats. The three summits held in Makkah on May 30 and 31 sent a clear message to Iran to cease its provocations and desist from the use or threat of force against its neighbors.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab and Islamic summits also sent a message of peace to Iran: It can become a normal and constructive part of the region if it changes its behavior. The GCC in particular has sent written messages to Iran suggesting a way out of its isolation.
The US has also publicly called for direct negotiations. For the international community, there are three main issues of concern: Iran’s nuclear program, its expanding ballistic missile program, and its malign regional activities, including attacks and threats against maritime navigation. Iran should accept that it needs to negotiate with its adversaries on all three issues. It appeared as if Iranian officials held the mistaken belief that it was sufficient to reach agreement on its nuclear program with a limited number of countries. It has said repeatedly that the other issues could not be topics of negotiations.
For these messages to make an impression, pressure has to continue. On June 7, the US Department of State issued a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing the expansion of the US “campaign to impose maximum economic pressure on the Iranian regime.” And the US Treasury this week imposed sanctions on Iran’s largest petrochemical holding group, the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, for providing support to Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters. This construction engineering conglomerate, a main contributor to the IRGC, had already been designated as a terror group. The US further designated its network of 39 subsidiary petrochemical companies and sales agents. This action is meant to deprive the IRGC of critical revenue. According to Pompeo’s statement, this policy is “aimed at depriving the Iranian regime of the funding it needs to sustain its expansionist foreign policy. Iran must end its nuclear threats and escalation, stop the testing of advanced ballistic missiles, cease support for terrorist proxies, and halt the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens.”
The US believes that “the only path forward is for Iran to negotiate a comprehensive deal that addresses these destabilizing behaviors.” This is something that Iran’s neighbors firmly believe as well.
On June 6 — the day before Pompeo’s statement — French President Emmanuel Macron came very close to this position. At the conclusion of a meeting with US President Donald Trump, the two leaders said they shared the goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Trump said after the meeting: “I don’t think the president (Macron) wants to see nuclear weapons and neither do I.” Macron said: “We do share the same objectives on Iran,” siding with Trump in calling for “a new negotiation” with Tehran. He added: “We want to be sure they don’t get nuclear weapons” and “we want to reduce their ballistic activity.”
As expected, there have been feverish public responses in Iran to Macron’s statement, but hopefully the message was received that France also shares the evolving consensus on the need to negotiate not only about the nuclear issue but the other issues too.
Hence the importance of the back-to-back visits by Abe and Maas. Both Japan and Germany are allies of the US but have also cultivated a close relationship with Iran.
Abe’s visit comes after Trump’s trip to Japan last month, when the US president welcomed his Japanese counterpart’s help in dealing with Iran because of the “very good relationship” Tokyo had with Tehran. Trump said at the time that, if Iran would “like to talk, we’d like to talk also.” Germany enjoys an even closer relationship with Iran, as it has championed closer European engagement with Tehran.
It is expected that both visitors will urge Iran to climb down and deescalate. To do this, Iran will need to rein in the IRGC and its proxies in the region, which is going to be difficult given their prominent position within Iran’s system. Hopefully, Iranian officials will also heed their guests’ advice to respond positively to repeated calls for negotiations on all issues of concern to their neighbors and the rest of the international community.