The US administration is convinced that a campaign of "maximum pressure" will work against the Islamic Republic of Iran. That was the message of US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, yesterday when he announced a $15 million reward for any person who "helps us disrupt the financial operations of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force."
The US is also going after Iran's shipping network of a dozen tankers that it says send crude oil to Syria's regime. Exhibit A: The Grace 1 which the US encouraged the UK to seize in Gibraltar, which was subsequently allowed to leave and which the US Justice Department and Treasury Department have tried to interdict on its way to Syria. But the Grace 1, now named the Adrian Darya, seems to have evaded the Americans. This was despite the fact the US allegedly offered millions in cash to the captain to just steer the ship to another destination.
The problem is that financial sanctions only go so far. The US has rebuffed French efforts to mediate with Iran and Tehran says it will continue to up enrichment of uranium. Iran says the US is engaged in economic terror and views the sanctions as a kind of war. In a kind of reverse of the Clausewitz motto, Iran asserts that "sanctions are war by other means." Iran is partly correct in this, because it views its role in the region as multi-layered. It acts like an octopus and it thinks if you attack one tentacle so it's like an attack on the whole structure. But Iran also knows it can sacrifice a few tentacles. It's very good at playing this tit-for-tat game and it has done it since the 1980s during the first "tanker war" in the Gulf.
It's not like Iran's game is so complex. The UK grabbed a tanker, so Iran grabs a UK-flagged tanker. Israel targeted an IRGC-Hezbollah operation in Syria on August 24, so Hezbollah fired Kornet missiles at Israel. Iran openly brags that cash alone won't break it, claiming it cannot be "bought from outside." The US State Department says that the Treasury has targeted 25 entities and individuals recently and 11 vessels tied to Iran. The US targeted the foreign minister and the IRGC and others as part of ratcheting up the pressure.
Iran also brags about the ability of its allies to continue to strike at US allies. For instance on September 5 Iran's Press TV says the Houthi rebels used a "squadron of domestically-manufactured Qasef 2K drones" to attack Saudi Arabia. Iran takes pride in its Houthi ally and its clear that the message is that this small group of rebels in the highlands of Yemen who are poor and underequipped have been able to use the latest drone and missile technology against Saudi Arabia and sow troubles for the Kingdom along the border. Saudi Arabia uses US technology, such as Patriot systems, to deal with some of the threats. But the story is clear from Iran's point of view, a poor rebel group has been able to hold off a Saudi-led coalition since 2015. Iran cold hold off the Americans.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.