Shamkhani is a longtime conservative who has been at the cornerstone of Iranian efforts to build a strategic deterrence capability via ranged missile platforms and research of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. And the council chief's words were clear. The admiral warned Israel on Tuesday that its "unacceptable" air strikes on Iranian missile forces in Syria would meet a "crushing and proportional response." Shamkhani claimed any new Israeli air strikes would mean Iran giving "a lesson to the liar and criminal Israeli rulers." But there's a lot more going on here than simple rhetoric. Shamkhani's words represent three different concerns of the Iranian hardliners.
First off, Shamkhani is showing that the hardliners are growing increasingly impatient with the more-moderate Iranian political bloc aligned under President Hassan Rouhani. Shamkhani's central concern here is the continuing impact of U.S. sanctions in strangling the Iranian economy. That hurts the hardliners because they control vast swathes of the Iranian economy. And with U.S. sanctions deterring European companies from investing in Iran, Shamkhani and company's wallets are shrinking.
But the hardliners also know that the last thing the Rouhani bloc wants is a showdown with Israel that isolates them from the rest of the world and buries any near-term opportunity to placate Iran's young, generally moderate population. In that sense, Shamkhani's threats represent a petulant message to the Rouhani bloc of "give me my money or I'll go nuts," as much as they do a threat to Israel proper.
The hardliners are also furious that Israel has been able to degrade their surface-to-surface missile capability in Syria. Designed to provide deep penetration of Israeli territory and strike Haifa, Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, those missiles are the cornerstone of Iran's warfighting capability. But both Iran and Israel know the latter's Iron Dome missile defense system is imperfect when faced with multiple simultaneous launches. Correspondingly, the Israeli air force has spent the past five years attacking stocks of the most powerful Iranian missiles. Shamkhani's threats thus represent a desperate Iranian warning to Israel to suspend these strikes.
But while he's a hardliner, Shamkhani is also a realist who previously presided over a failed outreach effort with Saudi Arabia. The admiral doesn't want to force the issue here because he knows Iran would lose a war with Israel. He's hoping upcoming Israeli elections will deter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from taking new action in fear of Iranian reprisals.
Then, there's Russia.
Because the hardliners are infuriated with Russia for failing to deter or defeat Israeli strikes on Syrian soil. The key here is that Russia has failed to utilize its advanced S-400 air defense network to engage Israeli warplanes entering Syrian airspace to strike Iranian missile units. Yet, that choice has been an easy one for President Vladimir Putin. Putin wants a stable, constructive relationship with Israel and knows that the Israelis regard Iran's missile deployments in Syria as a red line. Were he to activate the S-400 system in defense of Syria, Putin knows the Israelis would destroy it.
But there's another factor at play here. As Russia consolidates Bashar Assad's Syrian regime and prepares for the final showdown with anti-regime rebels in Idlib, Putin is looking to capitalize on the prestige that saving Assad has afforded him. That means using his successful defense of Assad to persuade Middle Eastern nations that he can better serve their interests than the U.S. can.
Putin wants to foster this understanding so that the Saudis and Emiratis buy tens of billions of dollars in Russian arms in return for Russia's constraint of Iran. Of course, the Saudis are in a vicious ideological struggle with Iran, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has no interest in seeing Iran protected. At the margin of Iranian expansionism and Saudi concern, Putin's interests are poorly served by granting a defense envelope to Iran.
Ultimately, then, what we're seeing from Iran is a wailing cry in the encroaching political darkness. The regime is under immense economic and military pressure, and its means of projecting power against its mortal enemy is being consistently depleted.