Mahdi Sajed, a member of the supreme leader's office moonlighting team, searches the sky with binoculars for the new moon that signals the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. (Ebrahim Noroozi / AP)
In just the past few weeks:
- Iran launched a rocket carrying a satellite into space. It also announced it is creating a new missile production line, and said it would continue with its missile program..
- The U.S. Navy fired warning shots at an Iranian vessel that came dangerously close to them in the Persian Gulf.
- Iran signed a military cooperation deal with Iraq, and it has been downplaying the U.S. role in the efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIS.
Why it matters: Iran has long been wary of the U.S. presence in the region, since it believes the U.S. is out to undermine its regime and ability to influence the region. These latest steps are Iran signaling to the U.S. that the time has come for U.S. influence in the region to wane, said Nick Heras, who has conducted research at the National Defense University for U.S. Cyber Command. Farzan Sabet, a Stanford University expert on U.S.-Iran relations who has done research on U.S.-Iran relations, put it simply — Iran "wants the Americans to leave."
The latest response: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Tuesday "it is our intention to push back on Iran's expansionist efforts to destabilize the region."
Iran's actions could be driven by Iranian fears that the Trump administration is more adversarial in the region than Obama:
- Iran's Defense Minister, Hossein Dehgan, said the impetus for the missile production line came from the $110 billion Saudi-U.S. weapons deals.
- Trump has expressed concerns about Iran's increasing influence in conflicts in the region and said last week he is considering dropping the 2015 Iran nuclear deal this fall.
- His administration is simultaneously reviewing U.S. policy towards Iran, an undertaking which has given "hints that it could seek a more confrontational stance toward Iran or even regime-change," Sebat said. Heras, who is also a fellow in the Middle East Security Program at CNAS, confirmed that "there is a deep current level of concern at the highest level of Iranian government" that Trump "might green-light a strategy of overthrow" in Tehran.
- The U.S. has moved to sanction Iran further.
- Note: The U.S. position is muddled after the senior director for Middle East policy in the National Security Council was ousted last Thursday. He had reportedly held a hard line against Iran, compared to the less allegedly hawkish stance of both the secretaries of Defense and State.
Breaking down Iran's response:
- The Iran-Iraq deal: Iran is pursuing a friendly government across the border. Inherently at play here is the U.S. presence in the region — both Iran-backed and U.S.-backed forces have been operating in Iraq.
- The dangerous maneuver from Iran in the Persian Gulf continues a trend of encounters with the U.S. (Take incidents from July 2016, August 2016, June 2017, as just some examples of similar past behavior.)
- The rocket carrying a satellite: "Iran wants to remind its opponents that even though it does not have the expensive military toys that the United States gives Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran has the capability to defend itself, and to do so in a highly devastating manner," Heras said. This move could alarm the U.S. that Iran is on the way to developing long range missiles that could hit other countries, such as Israel.
- Iran's new missile production line: Som in Iran "view Iranian nuclear weapons as a powerful option to prevent regime change activities by the Islamic Republic's enemies," Heras said. This production line, it's worth noting, is part of a pre-existing cooperation between Iran and Iraq, he said.
- Omitting the U.S. role in Mosul: Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been crediting themselves for liberating Mosul and downplaying the role of U.S.-backed forces to lessen U.S. influence among those who opposed the ISIS occupation.