Iranian Army Brig. Gen. Alireza Fard said this month: “Our deterrence and secret weapons have stopped the filthy enemy 200 miles away in the Strait of Hormuz.”
President Hassan Rouhani said: “The White House’s actions mean it is mentally retarded.”
IRGC aerospace commander Amirali Hajizadeh claimed: “An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past, but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities. If they make a move, we will hit them in the head.”
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy commander Ali Fadavi added on Thursday: “No one dares to fire even a single bullet at our country.”
IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani has said: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine... Come. We are ready. If you begin the war, we will end the war.”
These are just a few of the pugnacious recent threats by Iranian officials, alongside the Foreign Ministry insisting that “foreign powers should leave the region.” The mullahs have become so isolated from the real world that they are deluding themselves with their own fantastical propaganda of being all-conquering, globe-straddling warlords.
Who do Iran’s leaders think they are — threatening and provoking NATO members who enjoy a combined force capacity exponentially greater than Tehran’s puny armed forces? This is not pluckiness. Just like Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 conflict, the ayatollahs would flee into their underground bolt-holes, leaving long-suffering Iranians in the line of fire. Nasrallah in recent days has been bellowing similarly bellicose hyperbole: “Any war will be bigger than the 2006 war for Israel and it will put it on the brink of extinction.” But what about the civilian populations caught up in the middle of Nasrallah’s frenzied apocalyptical fantasies?
Tensions were ratcheted up further last week when, in compliance with international sanctions, British authorities in Gibraltar impounded an Iranian tanker illegally conveying oil to the Assad regime. Iran improbably threatened to retaliate by seizing a British ship. Within hours, they tried their luck against a British tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz, but the IRGC’s wannabe hijackers were sent packing by a naval frigate. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif blusteringly denied the incident ever happened. Although Britain is currently further beefing up its Gulf presence, it has indicated its readiness to release Iran’s tanker — if Tehran pledges no repeat trips to Syria. This is somewhat equivalent to giving a serial killer his knife back on condition of promises of future good behavior.
Tehran’s predatory leaders have 40 years’ experience of exploiting the weaknesses of crisis-wracked states. They sniffed blood in the water, with Britain enmeshed in a deteriorating political crisis over its relationship with the EU. However, while British politics has descended into such shambolic farce that Boris Johnson is the favorite to be prime minister, the UK by far is not yet Syria or Yemen.
Despite the US administration’s clumsy attempts to project strength on the international arena, Western nations have never looked more divided and ineffectual — with the Europeans seeking to undermine the US by preserving the 2015 nuclear deal at all costs. US President Donald Trump’s confused vacillations about his own policies haven’t helped: Tweets signaling that the nuclear issue is the only bone of contention contradict the administration’s exertions against Iranian regional aggression through paramilitary proxies. Ceaseless new rounds of sanctions are subject to the law of diminishing returns, while a leading Iranian export market — Iraq — has again been granted sanctions waivers. The lack of international consensus gives China, India and others a green light to ignore oil sanctions.
The final touches are being put to a multinational naval strategy for protecting Arabian Gulf shipping. A US military expert told me that there would also be a rapid upgrading of surveillance of IRGC activities: “We’ll deal with them before they even get close.” Although the operation may benefit from US command and control, given that much of the shipping is destined for Asian markets, this must be a broad coalition.
The recent spat between Britain and the US over leaked deprecating comments about Trump by the British ambassador demonstrates how brittle relations with the Trump administration can be. If Britain wants to protect its shipping and overseas assets from terrorism and Iranian threats, it is compelled to fall back on its traditional international alliances. European states have habitually stood together when threatened, despite self-defeating British attempts to render itself the black sheep of the family.
This crisis furthermore draws attention to Iran’s reliance on disputed islands and waterways, from which it has staged attacks and where it hoards offensive weapons. What if the international community was to retaliate by confiscating these maritime launch pads and restore them to their rightful Khaleeji owners? The risk of losing prime waterside real estate would certainly make Iran’s leaders think twice.
The ayatollahs are exhilarated by their high-risk game of divide and conquer against the international community, leaving the US looking highly isolated in its maximum pressure policy, while turning the heat on individual states like the UK when they do try and get tough. However, by triggering sharp rises in oil prices, increased risks to shipping and threats to global energy security, Iran is biting the hands that feed it. Does Tehran truly believe that energy-hungry states like China will be sympathetic to its obstructions of shipping?
None of us want war, especially not the Iranian people and certainly not Trump, who roars like a lion in his tweets but bleats like a lamb when it comes to holding Tehran accountable. Yet the current pattern of provocations takes us down a path where some form of confrontation (whether limited strikes or extended conflagration) becomes inevitable. For China, Japan, Russia, Germany and France, sitting on the fence and waiting to see how things play out isn’t a sensible option. Through naked economic necessity, these powers must, sooner or later, sign up to multilateral efforts to neutralize Iranian saber-rattling.
On the international stage, Iran is an insignificant irritant. Yet, just as the black rat spread the bubonic plague and the humble mosquito carries malaria, when global decision-makers fail to introduce appropriate preventive measures, tiny parasitic menaces are capable of bringing the world to its knees.