Earlier this month, amid reports that suggested the Trump administration is actively considering tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to drive down prices at the pump ahead of the November midterms, Mike Pompeo and Steve Mnuchin sent letters to America’s European allies summarily rejecting requests for waivers from secondary sanctions imposed on countries who import Iranian crude.
The U.S., Mnuchin and Pompeo said, is determined to apply “unprecedented financial pressure” on Tehran and that pressure will not abate until the Trump administration sees what it’s describing as a “tangible, demonstrable and sustained shift’’ in Iran’s behavior.
A couple of weeks later, Donald Trump took to Twitter to respond, in all-caps, to Hassan Rouhani who said the following about the prospect of future conflicts between the U.S. and Iran:
We’re not fighting or at war with any country, but the enemies have to clearly understand that war with Iran will be the mother of all wars and likewise peace with Iran is the mother of all peace.
Trump responded as follows (verbatim):
NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!” pic.twitter.com/XDkr7BRn9T
— Diane N. Sevenay (@Diane_7A) July 23, 2018
The important thing to keep in mind here is that this isn’t necessarily about nuclear proliferation. Rather, it’s about curbing Tehran’s regional influence.
This will always be couched in terms of Iran’s nascent nuclear program, but the real issue is the influence of the Quds in regional politics and conflicts, influence which has grown in recent years.
On July 12, Pompeo tweeted the following, in a rather transparent attempt to suggest that the Quds are the worry when it comes to international terrorism, a spurious claim in light of the fact that it is Sunni extremism that has plagued the West.
We ask our allies & partners to join our economic pressure campaign against #Iran’s regime. We must cut off all funding the regime uses to fund terrorism & proxy wars. There’s no telling when Iran may try to foment terrorism, violence & instability in one of our countries next. pic.twitter.com/XHxd3EPaBP
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 12, 2018
As you can see, he’s basically raising the specter of the Qassem Soleimani bogeyman for the thousandth time. Here’s what Pompeo told The National in an exclusive interview earlier this month:
Qassem Soleimani is causing trouble throughout Iraq and Syria and we need to raise the cost for him – for his organization and for him personally.
That is the worry for the U.S. and this a long-running story. Soleimani’s influence in regional affairs is the stuff of legend. Consider the following excerpts from a 2013 profile called “The Shadow Commander“, as published in The New Yorker:
Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, “and no one’s ever heard of him.”
Illustration by Krzysztof Domaradzki / The New Yorker
When Suleimani appears in public—often to speak at veterans’ events or to meet with Khamenei—he carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma. “He is so short, but he has this presence,” a former senior Iraqi official told me. “There will be ten people in a room, and when Suleimani walks in he doesn’t come and sit with you. He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him.”
You can read the entire profile for yourself, but suffice to say Soleimani is a ghost story; a larger-than-life figure in the Mideast. Recently, his fingerprints have shown up on everything from Putin’s intervention in Syria to the infamous kidnapped Qatari falconry party that purportedly helped spark the Qatar embargo last year, to the rather embarrassing seizure of Kirkuk.
He is the target of the U.S. push to isolate Iran and on Thursday, he had some words for Donald Trump.
Speaking in Hamedan, Soleimani said the following, apparently addressing Trump directly:
Waging a war [with Iran] will destroy all that you own. You may begin the war, but it us who will end it.
Soleimani’s speech came just a day after the Saudis temporarily suspended oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, following attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis, with whom Riyadh has been at war since 2015. Here’s the official statement from Saudi Aramco:
As confirmed a short while ago by the Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, H.E. Khalid Al-Falih, two Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), each with a two million barrels capacity, operated by the Saudi National Shipping Company, Bahri, and transporting Saudi Aramco crude oil were attacked by terrorist Houthi militia this morning in the Red Sea. One of the ships sustained minimal damage. No injuries nor oil spill have been reported.
In the interest of the safety of ships and their crews and to avoid the risk of oil spill, Saudi Aramco has temporarily halted all oil shipments through Bab El-Mandeb with immediate effect. The Company is carefully assessing the situation and will take further action as prudence demands.
The Houthis have a habit of lobbing missiles into Saudi Arabia and there’s no end in sight to the war of attrition in Yemen. But the attacks on the oil vessels are a notable escalation. The timing isn’t likely a coincidence, coming as it does amid the Trump administration’s efforts to squeeze Tehran’s oil revenue.
Richard Mallinson, geopolitical analyst at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. in London, told Bloomberg the following on Thursday:
Fingers will certainly be pointed at Iran, a long-term backer of the Houthis, although the Saudis and others overstate the extent to which Iran influences the Yemeni group.
Maybe, but it’s a mistake to underestimate Iran’s influence over its regional proxy forces. Here are a couple of visuals from RBC which give you an idea of the extent to which the group ratcheted up its attacks in the second quarter of 2018:
Some 5 million barrels per day of crude and petro products traveled through the Bab el-Mandeb as of 2016, far less than the Strait of Hormuz, which the IRGC has variously threatened to blockade in the event Trump pushes the envelope too far. Nearly a third of global oil tanker traffic moves through the strait.
Again, it’s unlikely that the Houthi attacks are a coincidence in terms of timing. As Bloomberg notes in the article linked above, this “coincided with news that Hindustan Petroleum Corp., one of India’s state-controlled refiners, canceled one cargo of Iranian oil earlier this month after renewing insurance cover and is unlikely to buy any more until India can obtain a waiver from the U.S.” That, according to an official at the refiner.
Just to reiterate, the U.S. has indicated waivers will be hard to come by. South Korea and Japan reportedly stopped taking Iranian crude recently in lieu of relief from the Treasury department.
In that context, Soleimani’s Thursday warning to Trump is especially notable. This wasn’t lost on the Washington Post, who wrote the following about the situation:
[Soleimani’s] remarks came just one day after Saudi Arabia announced it was suspending oil shipments in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, because of what authorities said was a missile attack on two Saudi oil tankers by Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen.
The Iranian commander “knows he has a range of indirect options to needle U.S. interests across the region,” Tobias Schneider, a Middle East analyst at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Soleimani’s options, he said, include threatening U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, stepping up missile attacks on Saudi cities, and disrupting regional shipping lanes.
If Mike Pompeo’s recent speeches and interviews are any indication, he’s likely taken special notice of Soleimani’s Thursday speech and, of course, of the Houthi attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb.
The problem here for the Trump administration is that it isn’t clear there’s anything they can do to materially curb the Quds’ regional activities. They wouldn’t be the first administration to fail in that regard, but given the futility of the effort, it raises questions about whether it’s a good idea to abandon the nuclear deal under false pretenses.