Tensions between Iran and its Western opponents sharpened over the past week, between Iranian saber-rattling on the one hand and growing coordination among Western powers against Tehran on the other. The EU sounded the alarm over Iranian cyber espionage. The U.S. designated new Iranian proxy militias as terrorist entities. The French government, for its part, warned of new EU sanctions absent Iranian concessions on its missile program.
EU WARNS OF RISING IRANIAN CYBER THREAT
On Monday, the EU’s Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) published a report warning that Iran is likely to expand its cyber espionage activities as its relations with Western powers worsen: “Newly imposed sanctions on Iran are likely to push the country to intensify state-sponsored cyber threat activities in pursuit of its geopolitical and strategic objectives at a regional level.”
The report follows a recent EU decision to impose its first sanctions on Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal — a reaction to Iran’s ballistic missile tests and a new round of assassination plots on European soil. The regime immediately dismissed the report as “part of a psychological war launched by the United States and its allies against Iran.”
US SANCTIONS TARGET IRANIAN MILITIAS
Washington has meanwhile augmented its staunch economic measures to contain Tehran’s ambitions. On January 24, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on two of Iran’s militia proxies in Syria: the Fatemiyoun Division, composed of Afghan nationals; and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade, consisting of Pakistani nationals, both led and directed by the Qods Force.
While Congress has sought to persuade both the Trump and Obama administrations to designate Iran’s militia network in Syria -- meeting varying degrees of resistance along the way -- this measure was the first time that an administration voluntarily initiated the process.
Commenting on the measure, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “The brutal Iranian regime exploits refugee communities in Iran, deprives them of access to basic services such as education, and uses them as human shields for the Syrian conflict … Treasury’s targeting of Iran-backed militias and other foreign proxies is part of our ongoing pressure campaign to shut down the illicit networks the regime uses to export terrorism and unrest across the globe.”
IRANIAN MILITARY EXCERCISES THREATEN "RAPID AND CRUSHING BLOW"
Iran, for its part, staged war games last Friday, showcasing newly developed ‘rapid re-deployment units’ and over 12,000 elite troops, armored vehicles, fighter jets, and drones. The exercises took place over two days in the central province of Isfahan. General Kioumars Heydari, head of the regular army’s ground forces, told state television, “[Through] these war games we will showcase two important developments: a special-forces rapid deployment battalion and a highly mobile offensive armored battalion.” Any “aggressors,” he added, would face a “rapid and crushing blow.”
FRENCH PATIENCE WEARING THIN
Alongside the American announcement of new sanctions, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared last Friday that his country was ready to impose further sanctions on Iran if no progress is made in talks over its ballistic missile program. “We are ready, if the talks don’t yield results, to apply sanctions firmly, and they know it,” Le Drian told reporters.
The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a warning of its own. Spokesman Bahram Qasemi said, “Iran’s missile capability is not negotiable… [and] any new sanctions by European countries will lead to a reevaluation by Iran of its interactions with those countries.” But Foreign Minister Zarif sounded a more conciliatory tone, adding cryptically that he “could not confirm whether or not there are secret negotiations with France about the missile program.”