A new round of tension is expected to erupt between Iran and the West. European sanctions on Iran's oil sector are reaching their peak, burdening the Islamic Republic and pushing its economy toward unprecedented challenges. Iran now faces the challenge of responding and moving from threats to actions. For their part, the West is betting that Tehran will comply with the rules of the game without resorting to any unusual escalatory actions. Indeed, all of the crises across the Middle East are moving to the rhythm of the nuclear disputes between Iran and the West.
Neither of the two parties is willing to back down. At the same time, neither of them wants to escalate the situation. However it is unlikely that the status quo will be maintained. First, the European sanctions have reached a level that the Iranians are not expected to tolerate. Second, Tehran is moving forward with its nuclear program and the West's patience in this regard is wearing thin. Pre-war options are running out, but there are not enough factors that can lead to the eruption of a war that both sides are trying to avoid.
Despite the precariousness of the situation, the unprecedented presence of US military forces in Gulf waters does not necessarily mean that Washington is ready for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, the large-scale military maneuvers conducted by the Revolutionary Guard Corps do not necessarily express Tehran's intention to head toward a military escalation. These maneuvers do not even indicate that Tehran will soon close the Strait of Hormuz. Such a step would practically signal the start of a military confrontation, which Iran will not resort to unless it is the target of [Western] military aggression or if it was prevented from exporting its oil. In the context of this difficult situation, the question is, what are Iran’s possible responses to the Western sanctions, which have been described by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the most severe sanctions a country could ever face?
Iran does not appear likely to swiftly or decisively respond to the Western sanctions. But in the coming period, it will take measures that are primarily designed to circumnavigate the sanctions, reduce their effects, and, consequently, inflict as much harm as possible upon Western policies and interests in the region. The following are some of the measures that Tehran can take:
- Freeze negotiations with the West, stop all forms of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), continue to enrich uranium and possibly abandon the additional protocol that deals with the convention on nuclear proliferation.
- Secure markets outside of Europe for Iranian oil and use their financial reserves ($120 billion) that was saved from the high oil profits to compensate for the expected losses in oil revenue.
- Raise the level of coordination with Moscow and other international actors as a precursor to establishing a new regional order, aimed at reducing US influence in the region.
- Rigorously support the Syrian regime and work to besiege US interests in Iraq, while opening up to the Taliban and encouraging it to intensify its military operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
- Activate the Iranian military presence in the Strait of Hormuz and control its traffic without going as far as completely closing it, while being fully prepared to deal with any US provocation militarily.
Iran and the West are expected to move toward further escalation, but no war is likely to break out. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the current situation between the two sides is heading toward a heated confrontation.