On the one side, you are led to deduce from statements like those made by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that Iran is not pursuing war, and that “the difference between us and them is that they are afraid of war and don’t have the will for it,” as Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the head of the elite IRGC, told Fars News Agency this week. But should we believe him?
On the other side, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US could not be seen to waver after a series of carefully synchronized attacks that fell short of disrupting oil shipments.
An assessment issued this week by the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association concluded that the IRGC was “highly likely” to have facilitated last week’s attacks on four oil tankers, including two from Saudi Arabia, off Fujairah in the UAE. The report stipulates that the attacks were likely carried out by a surface vessel operating close by that dispatched underwater drones carrying 30 to 50 kilograms of high-grade explosives, which detonated on impact.
In a joint letter sent to the UN Security Council, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway said the attacks had been deliberate and could have resulted in casualties and spillages of oil or harmful chemicals.
Saudi Arabia has announced that it wants to avert war in the region but stands ready to respond with “all strength” following last week’s attacks on its oil assets; telling Iran that the ball was now in its court. Riyadh has accused Tehran of also ordering the drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the Kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.
Meanwhile, steps by the US to cut down staff at its missions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East coincided with a missile falling in Baghdad’s Green Zone, close to the US Embassy.
Last week’s attacks took place against a backdrop of US-Iranian tension following Washington’s decision to try to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero and beef up its military presence in the Gulf in response to what it called Iranian threats.
Across Iran’s capital, the talk seems to always come back to how things may get worse, according to the Associated Press. But most believe that war will not come to the region despite the US saber-rattling.
In short, the situation in the Gulf is nothing but a barrel full of explosive powder short of a fuse.
The attacks by drones operated by the IRGC or its many Arab agents in the region, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, bear the hallmarks of Tehran’s modus operandi. One would be foolish to believe that saber-rattling alone will scare Iran or compound its problems, as its theocratic regime has been thriving on threats since it dared to take US hostages at their own embassy in Tehran in 1979.
I am not an advocate of war, but history has shown that Iran has been emboldened time and again to take occasional shots at the US in the region or to undermine the state authority of various countries. Empty threats from the Trump administration will hinder rather than help the prospects of peace and security in the Gulf, and risk further denting the stature of the US and its allies in the region.
Iran’s brinkmanship and its ability to maneuver and outplay the international community is evident. Tightening the noose on what is already a pariah state energizes the resolve among its ranks, regardless of the starving Iranians at home.
Over many years, the theocracy in Tehran has developed a key operation manual that is activated whenever the going gets tough. It raises the level of rhetoric and then fires a few strategic warning shots via its many proxies — and this is usually enough for the West to retreat.
Iran is in breach of international law if it is proven to be the mastermind of the attacks on the cargo ships in UAE waters and the oil installations in Saudi Arabia. It has done so before and maybe the world then chose to go after the proxy rather than the source.
Iran is likely to go further, as many say it has nothing to lose. Tehran could reactivate its nuclear program as a reaction to what it perceives as the US and its allies’ belligerent acts to suffocate its economy. It may carry out a test of a new and more lethal long-range missile, in defiance of the international community. Tehran could even further harden its anti-American stance in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon. Last but not least, the country’s leadership has repeatedly warned that, if Iran is squeezed, it could deport nearly 3 million Afghan refugees, creating an unprecedented wave of migration that could force Western liberal democratic countries to buckle.
This brinkmanship, played by Tehran all along and now played by Washington too, could miraculously be a prelude to a new deal. But, make no mistake, the Middle East nowadays is not home to miracles. The Iran regime can withstand all US pressure short of a military strike and, unless the Iranian people decide enough is enough, the regime has proven in the past its impressive resilience and ability to outplay its opponents, ensuring its grip on power outlasts the relatively short political life of all its Western opponents.