Hezbollah and Israel were last week involved in clashes in the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah had reportedly fired a missile at an Israeli tank in the Shebaa Farms area. Miraculously, the skirmishes were contained in a matter of hours. The confrontation was quickly contained as the Lebanese armed forces and UN Interim Force in Lebanon interfered. Each party claimed to have foiled their opponent’s plot. In contrast with its usual rhetoric, Hezbollah did not seem willing to get into any confrontation with Israel. Is this because Iran and its proxies are exhausted from Israeli attacks in Syria and US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy? Or is that Iran is simply buying time and does not want to instigate any confrontation before November’s US election?
This face-off coincided with a written proposal to end the war in Yemen by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he addressed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Ahmadinejad suggested forming a committee of respected international personalities to hold negotiations between the different Yemeni factions. He added that he was launching this initiative as a “member of the humanitarian community” who is hurt by the news he gets about Yemen. The tone was conciliatory and different from the defiant attitude Iran has previously adopted when addressing the Gulf.
It is unlikely Ahmadinejad proposed this initiative without getting the green light from the higher authorities in Iran. Nevertheless, it is a way to reach out to Saudi Arabia without publicly facing rejection, in case Crown Prince Mohammed was not receptive. In that case, Iran can always say the initiative was an individual one presented by the former president, who is not a representative of the current Iranian government. Tehran could also use a rejection as a public relations tool against the Kingdom. At the same time, if the Saudis called Iran’s bluff and accepted the initiative, this would allow the Iranians to play for time while waiting for the US presidential election.
Iran is currently under immense pressure, starting with the bombings of its positions in Syria. Israel is also suspected of being behind last month’s bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iran. The US is also intensifying its maximum pressure campaign on Iran. However, its elections are only three months away and Joe Biden, who seems to have a good chance of winning the White House, has promised to go back to the nuclear deal, which would release Iran from sanctions. If Biden follows Barack Obama, he might give Iran concessions. The former president gave the Iranians concessions on Syria in order to avoid disrupting the flow of negotiations with Tehran. He also was lax on the issue of Hezbollah and backed down from the red line he drew for Bashar Assad after Iran threatened to withdraw from negotiations. Therefore, if Biden wins, Iran might be able to sustain its project in Syria and the Levant and benefit from the lifting of sanctions.
The Iranians are carpet sellers, they are good negotiators. They know how to gain time and lay low in order to get the most out of a deal. One should analyze Ahmadinejad’s offer and the skirmishes in Southern Lebanon from this perspective. It is not to Iran’s advantage to start any confrontation now. A confrontation could have two effects: A clash with any of the US’ allies will probably alienate a Biden administration from relaunching the nuclear agreement or going back to the deal, as requested by Iran. The other issue is that a war, especially if the US is involved, might have the effect of rallying Americans around the flag, which could bump up Trump’s approval rating. Trump promised to end the US’ endless wars and one main reason for him avoiding hitting mainland Iran after the Iranians shot down a drone was that he did not want to undertake an action that would damage his popularity with his base. However, a war might create a sense of emergency and threat among the American public.
The Saudis, on the other hand, have little trust in the Iranians. At the inception of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini advocated the export of the revolution, which is a direct threat to Arab Gulf states and their systems. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will rush to embrace Iran’s proposal as a goodwill gesture. Nevertheless, the conciliatory tone presented in the initiative is a way to tell the Saudis “let us keep calm for a while.” Iran has definitely been weakened by the fight and the sanctions. In key territories in the Levant, its proxies like Hezbollah and Iraqi groups are on shaky ground. One reason why Hezbollah avoided a confrontation with Israel in Southern Lebanon is because it knows it doesn’t want to get involved in a situation it won’t be able to handle.
Iran knows its limitations and is trying to operate within them. The sanctions Trump imposed when he withdrew from the nuclear deal weakened the regime, but not to the point of it having to go down on its knees and accept the conditions he put forward to lift the sanctions. However, as the prospects of a Biden presidency grow stronger by the day, the Iranians are trying to buy time and lay low while accommodating foes and waiting for the big day — Nov. 3.