Iran is in a position to stop shipments through its Strait of Hormuz ‘chokepoint’ at the entrance to the Gulf if provoked.
Among Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Iran ranks fifth behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Iran’s crude and condensate exports form about a quarter of those of Saudi Arabia. Oil sales account for around one-third of government revenues.
In Washington, proponents of a new sanctions regime contend it is already having an impact. Since the US announced its withdrawal from JCPOA the Iranian riyal has halved in value against international currencies.
A dramatically weaker riyal pushing up prices of imports and fueling inflation will exert pressure on the regime.
One of the negative side effects of a tightening of sanctions on places like Iran is such actions tend to benefit those who are able to profit from disruptions to normal economic activity.
In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC) controls wide swathes of the economy and therefore is in a position to further tighten its grip. Conversely, attempts to isolate Iran will inevitably weaken moderates led by its president Hassan Rouhani and undermine a more-open economy.
Rouhani finds himself under increasing pressure from regime hardliners. This is one of the perverse and likely negative side effects of US policy aimed at bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.
In Canberra officials are worried about US strategy towards Iran. This is threatening a wider conflict in the Middle East, prompted by bellicose statements by administration officials.
Bishop herself has, more than once, expressed scepticism about the US approach, most recently in a Chatham House speech in London on July 19 where she raised concerns about a US commitment to a ‘rules-based’ international order.
“Our closest ally and the world’s most powerful nation is being seen as less predictable and less committed to the international order it pioneered,’’ she said. ‘’There is an increasing for nation to take a one-sided, unilateral approach to some of their international interest, including economic interests.’’
Washington seems intent on ramping up pressure on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Iran’s leadership of running a “40-year kleptocracy’’.
Pompeo has also announced the US is launching a Farsi-language channel on TV, radio, digital and social media platforms, to help Iranians get around internet censorship. American strategy is clearly aimed at destabilising the regime.
However, in another example of whipsawing American foreign policy Pompeo’s remarks were contradicted by an offer last week by President Donald Trump to meet Iranian leaders “without preconditions’’. This offer was quickly rejected by Tehran.
What all this signifies is US policy towards Iran is ragged, to say the least, against a background of the lack of an international consensus about how to deal with Iranian provocations, including its meddling in places like Syria.
It is not overstating things to say European signatories to JCPOA - Germany, the United Kingdom and France – are dismayed over a threatened unravelling of the nuclear deal, a centrepiece of Obama-era diplomacy.
Risks of an Iranian breakout from its undertaking to freeze its nuclear program have increased as a consequence.
At this stage there is no clear line of sight as to how a two-stage re-imposition of sanctions will play itself out. What is the case however is Washington’s ability to enforce its sanctions regime globally will meet significant resistance.
China and India, the largest recipients of Iran’s oil, have indicated they will continue to trade Iranian crude, and may well increase shipments. On the other hand other big oil importers like Japan and Korea have been scaling back in anticipation of the re-imposition of a new sanctions regime.
Washington has indicated it may issue waivers on Iranian crude exports to certain countries, including China, but these will need to be negotiated adding to uncertainties in the oil market.
All this contrasts with a relatively coherent global consensus on measures to deal with North Korea. By contrast there is little agreement on how to exert pressure on Iran.
As part of its attempts to increase pressure on Iran, the US is encouraging the establishment of an Arab ‘NATO’. This would include the six gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. This would set Sunni Arab states, supported by Israel, against Shia Iran.
This would not seem to be a recipe for peace and stability in the world’s most volatile region. Rather, it risks increasing tensions.
It is not clear whether the US itself would be a participant in an ‘Arab NATO’. Australia would not have much enthusiasm for deeper engagement in the region - after all, it has been seeking to wind back its commitments in Middle East and in Afghanistan.
In 2017 Australian two-way merchandise trade with Iran reached $A200 million. Trade in services added another $A250 million.