- Iran has scaled back its provocations towards the US in multiple ways recently, including halting its harassment of US Navy ships and more.
- Some of the pullback may be due to President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric.
- But the reality may be more nuanced.
Iran has recently scaled back its provocations of the US in multiple ways – but no one is quite sure why.
Iranian fast boats haven’t harassed a US Navy ship in about five months after repeatedly doing so for at least two years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some military officials and outside analysts are giving at least some credit to the Trump administration.
“I hope it’s because we have messaged our readiness … and that it isn’t tolerable or how professional militaries operate,” the head of CENTCOM, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, recently told reporters, according to the Journal.
Since January 2016, there were an average of more than two “unsafe or unprofessional” encounters each month, the Journal reports, citing US military officials. The most serious incident happened that January when two small US Navy ships drifted in Iranian waters, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps crew temporarily held the US sailors captive.
In 2017, Iranian fast boats swarmed US Navy ships multiple times and, in one case, even shined a laser on a CH-53E helicopter, as well as a spotlight on the USS Bataan helicopter carrier. The latest incident happened in August when an Iranian drone flew near a US aircraft attached to USS Nimitz carrier.
Iran repeatedly blamed the confrontations on the US.
There are other signs Iran is pulling back from engaging the US.
Iran has been scaling back its testing of medium-range ballistic missiles, having tested only one since February 2017, according to a report from Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Additionally, Iran did not make an “technical infringements” on its nuclear deal commitments last year, Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Business Insider in an email.
Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, tweeted on Thursday that “One could also point to much milder reaction of Iran’s security forces to recent protests compared to 2009 and previous episodes of unrest in #Iran. So is there a pattern?”
The Trump effect
President Donald Trump had been for months threatening to end sanctions relief stipulated in the Iran nuclear deal, but recently agreed to keep it intact for at least a few more months.
The decline of Iranian-US confrontations at sea didn’t indicate a “strategic shift” by Iran, according to Votel, who pointed out that the country continues to meddle in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
“I think they understand the administration’s policy at this stage is to put the spotlight on Iranians and portray them as the source of all evil in the region,” Vaez told the Journal.
“The Iranians are certainly part of the problem in the region, but they’d like to be portrayed as part of the solution, not just the problem,” he said.
Taleblu, writing in the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report, notes that “since being put ‘on notice’ by the Trump administration in February 2017, Iran has reportedly only once conducted an MRBM test.”
“It is highly likely that the administration’s threat intimidated Tehran, altering its flight-testing calculus,” Taleblu writes. “In fact, a hardline Iranian outlet quoted an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official who complained that the SLV test was delayed due to fears over the potential American response.”
The more nuanced reality
Vaez later tweeted that “DC hawks may argue that Iran has been deterred by [Trump’s] tough rhetoric & putting Iran ‘on notice’. But reality is more nuanced.”
10. Iranian restraint shows 3 things: 1) A system in Iran that is cleverly set on winning the international blame game, 2) the desire to keep the Europeans on board shows what leverage really means, & 3) the govt can shape policy in Iran & rein the IRGC in.
— Ali Vaez (@AliVaez) January 25, 2018
Vaez told the Journal that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council ordered Iran’s Revolutionary Guard last summer to stand its ground, but to also stop harassing US Navy ships.
The recent drawback from the US could also be due to internal factors in Iran.
“Internally, Rouhani has been trying to clip the wings of the IRGC, on their military moves but also economic influence,” Rafati, from the International Crisis Group, told Business Insider. “The latter is something that’s necessary but not sufficient for the government to start addressing the serious problems of corruption and mismanagement which contributed to the recent protests.”
It’s difficult to tell if this pattern of Iranian restrain will continue, Vaez tweeted, as “tensions elsewhere in region could still escalate.”