By Rufat Ahmadzada
Amidst the tensions in the Persian Gulf following the shooting down of an American drone by the IRGC, news outlets thought a US military response was highly likely. The following day US President Donald Trump called off an imminent US retaliatory strike on Iran. His comments that the Iranian strike may not have been intentional look as though he is excluding the possibility of all-out war. This has been interpreted by several analysts as an exit strategy for the Iranian leadership with the intention of calming the situation on the ground.
President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran’s regime is proven to be working smoothly as Tehran is facing crippling economic problems and popular protests by Iranian workers, truck drivers, students and other segments of society. Inflation has surged since last year and the government is unable to pay public sector workers monthly. One can argue that the sanctions are the major reason for the country’s economic situation. However, since the 2003 Iraq invasion by US-led forces, Iran’s leadership started to preside over a programme of active regional expansion through proxy forces in many countries in the Middle East. Sustaining those proxy forces is costly financially and places a huge burden on Iran’s economy. After the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical industry, it has become more difficult to sustain the regime’s satellite proxies financially.
The nuclear agreement of 2015, known as the JCPOA, has had some economic benefits for Iran. Former US President Barack Obama thought to alleviate the economic situation for Iran in order to reintegrate the country into the club of civilised nations. However, the Obama doctrine had major shortcomings including the imprecise mechanism for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the failure to roll back Iran’s aggressive expansionism in the region.
As a matter of fact, President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement cannot be identified as the major reason for the current high tensions in the region. The sequence of events started at a time when Iran was facing sporadic internal unrest in different cities. A US intelligence report that Iranian-backed and linked groups were planning to attack vital strategic interests in the region was the main trigger for the sending of additional troops and squadrons, warships and aircraft carriers to the Gulf. This was done to deter and prevent Iran from taking risky steps. On the contrary, the Iranian regime’s sabotage of four tankers in Fujairah and direct attacks against a Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman once again proved that the regime has chosen the path of limited confrontation with the US and some regional allies. There are several reasons for this.
Subversive Actions as a Strategy to Break Sanctions
The Iranian regime’s main concern is the US sanctions on vital sectors of its economy such as the petrochemical and metallurgical industries. This in turn weakens its main bureaucracy, which keeps it in power, and its projections of influence in the region through the IRGC. Having sensed the major gap between Washington and Brussels over the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, the Islamic Republic is playing a strategy to widen the gap and pressurise the European Union to uphold the agreement. President Rouhani’s remarks that Iran would suspend one part of the agreement and start enriching uranium are a warning to the Europeans that Iran’s regime is capable of creating serious trouble for Brussels. This includes allowing Afghan refugees to move westward into EU countries. So, nuclear blackmail and refugees are the only remaining tools for the Islamic Republic to scare the European Union countries into maintaining the JCPOA.
After the US withdrawal from the agreement, the EU leaders have thought to circumvent sanctions by creating a special mechanism to trade with Iran. But so far, this endeavour has resulted in nothing as far as the global trade and economy rules are concerned. In addition, the possibility of a full scale war is a nightmare for Europe because it could instigate a new refugee flow to the continent. Obviously, the EU will have to change its failed Iran policy by bridging the existing gap between Brussels and Washington. Supporting Iranian opposition and human rights in the country will inevitably be the pillars of a new strategy.
The IRGC leadership under the recently appointed Hossein Salami is keen to prove its ability to disrupt freedom of navigation and inflict pain on the global economy in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. Conducting hybrid warfare operations against civilian ships is part of that strategy to force the Trump administration to accept the Tehran regime as a reality in the region and there to stay. Internal instability, the rising popularity of opposition leader Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, international isolation and the struggle to sustain its Middle East proxies economically are the regime’s key concerns. They are using the creation of a limited international crisis in the Gulf as an exit strategy in the expectation that the Iranian people will rally behind the regime in case of war.
Between Action and Inaction What May Go Wrong?
President Trump’s remarks that the shooting down of an American drone was a mistake and probably not intentional could have damaging consequences for multiple reasons. First and foremost, when the American leadership draws a red line in a situation of military confrontation, then hesitates to act if the red line is crossed, this exacerbates the crisis and makes it a global one. The last time, when President Obama declined to strike on Syria after the deadly chemical attacks in 2013, this worsened the civil war and created many implications in the region and Europe. Consistency and a swift response are key pillars of international relations. President Trump’s failure to make a retaliatory response may embolden the clerics in Tehran and convince the IRGC generals that Iran can get away with its subversive actions with impunity. They may believe that Trump will not act despite his rhetoric. This sends the wrong message to the regime and its allies, as Supreme Leader Khamenei may feel assured that Iran’s military deterrence is fully established and the US will make similar decisions in future.
The domestic aspect of this may be harmful too, as the regime may increase its abusive policies against dissent and demonstrators. In the case of Syria’s Assad, the international community’s failure to act encouraged him to increase the cruel suppression of the rebellion against his regime. The sense of impunity might also embolden the Islamic Republic to increase its oppression domestically. The Tehran regime may replicate Assad’s invitation to the Russians, following the failure to take action against him in 2013, by allowing the Russians to establish a footprint in the Persian Gulf. Scheduled joint naval drills in the Persian Gulf may be the first step. Moreover, regional allies will have to consider their ties with Tehran, if the United States shows a sign of hesitation or weakness in dealing with the regime. All of these factors require a swift, well calculated and consistent ground strategy to deal with the threat posed by the Islamic Republic
Mr. Rufat Ahmadzada is a British-Azerbaijani blogger who writes primarily on the Caucasus and Iran. He has an MA in International Politics and Human Rights from the University of London, UK.