How Iran’s aggression is undermining US stature in the Middle East

So far, Iran has done nothing but ridicule Trump’s handling of the crisis to make Washington appear weak and unprepared for war.
Sunday 16/06/2019
A member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chants slogans during a military drill in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP)
A sense of impunity. A member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chants slogans during a military drill in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP)

Despite talk of mediation efforts and shuttle diplomacy, tensions between the United States and Iran escalated, with Tehran engaging in hostile behaviour against Washington and its allies in the Arabian Gulf.

While Tehran denies involvement in brazen attacks in the Gulf, there appears to be a pattern: An unprovoked attack threatens maritime trade and more unprovoked attacks, via Iran’s proxies, target one of Washington’s allies or vice versa.

The most recent incident targeted two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The day before, there was an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport, claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

There are many indications that Iran was behind the attacks, especially that these attacks required a high level of expertise and sophistication as well as weapons that are known to be in Tehran’s arsenal.

The attacks also seem to be increasing in severity. Unlike previous incidents, the ships attacked in the Gulf of Oman were heavily laid with oil and chemicals when they were reportedly targeted while on the move.

The latest aggression was condemned by Saudi Arabia and its ally the United States. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused “Iran and its proxies” of working “against American and allied interests.”

Pompeo is not wrong. Washington’s assessment of the evidence concludes Tehran is to blame for the crimes it has repeatedly denied.

Why would Iran carry out such attacks at a time when many countries, including Japan, Oman and Iraq, have been working to ease tensions?

The answer, as I have pointed out in previous commentaries, is that Iran, unlike the rest of the world, is not interested in peace. This could not be more obvious than when looking at Iran’s response to mediation efforts and its repeated refusal to engage in dialogue with Washington.

Even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put it plainly. After meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Khamenei said that, despite Japan’s efforts, he does “not consider [US President Donald] Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with.”

“I have no answer for him (Trump) nor will I respond to him in the future,” Khamenei added.

So far, Iran has done nothing but ridicule Trump’s handling of the crisis to make Washington appear weak and unprepared for war. Iran’s state media has worked tirelessly to exaggerate the country’s military prowess in relation to Washington.

This suggests that war is no longer a possibility; it has effectively already begun. This is how the Iranian regime views the situation.

Take Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s warning issued June 10. The United States, he said, “cannot expect to stay safe” after having initiated what he described as economic warfare against Tehran.

Zarif’s sharp tone was uncharacteristic for the US-educated diplomat and gave a disturbing sign to the United States: Iran has considered itself as being in a state of war, whether media, economic or otherwise, since Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.

While Zarif does not call the shots on whether to go to war — Khamenei has that role — his statements must echo conversations in the corridors of power.

Tehran’s belief that the war has begun is also evident through its foreign policy. By enlisting proxies and rogue actors throughout the region to carry out its objectives in an increasingly aggressive manner, Iran shows that it is committed to conflict and cannot be negotiated with.

So far, Iran’s escalation has been met with impunity. Washington has failed to send a strong response and, even worse, the international community cannot come to an agreement on whether Tehran is even responsible for the recent attacks.

The Iranians sense weakness and hope to exploit it. In their minds, the United States is “weaker than ever,” as Hadi al-Amiri, Tehran’s man in Baghdad, once said. As such, they are confident they can publicly expose the United States’ decline on the world stage and reshape the geopolitical order.

Iran has a reason for its confidence. It has run the math and determined that it would have a distinct advantage in any military confrontation with the United States.

Iran holds a vast territory — 3 to 4 times larger than Iraq — with a much larger population. This would render a US intervention far more complex than the one that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

Iranians also know that a ground offensive by US forces is nearly impossible because their mountain-filled terrain would make it hard for US tanks to navigate. When it comes to the sea, Iran is confident that the fate of the Strait of Hormuz — the lone, narrow maritime gateway between the Gulf and the larger Indian Ocean — is in their hands and nearly all within range of their short-range missiles. This means no one would dare sail there or the ships or tankers, which could risk coming under attack in the event of war.

In light of this, Iran feels invincible. The Iranians are convinced that the US administration, caught up in domestic political turbulence, is unlikely to risk a misadventure in the Arabian Gulf.

As a result, Tehran believes it is time to shatter Washington’s image of invincibility — which Iran sees as a myth — emboldening Shia militias across the region and potentially sparking an arms race with US allies.

Is the Trump administration really caught on the defensive? It seems so. Iran, time and again, has scored points against the United States, threatening its stature in the Middle East with no penalty.

This leaves US allies in the Arabian Gulf with few options. Going forward, they must take note of the Iranian threat and do what they can to combat it themselves, either by strengthening their defences, becoming increasingly self-reliant in terms of security or developing new alliances in the region and beyond.