Iran’s brinkmanship leading the region to the brink
The sabotage operation at the Port of Fujairah gives an idea about how Iran might respond to US sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy. Iran has not claimed responsibility for the operation that targeted four commercial ships at one of the world’s largest refuelling ports.
The operation did not result in significant damage to the vessels involved or cause casualties. It does, however, highlight the tools that Tehran will adopt in its confrontation with Washington.
Tehran is trying to avoid a direct military confrontation with Washington but it will go the extra mile in military and security actions that would be practically impossible for its foes to trace back to it. Through this policy, Iran aims to raise the cost of any confrontation with it by showing that the Arab Gulf and even its areas of influence in the region are not safe for Washington and its allies.
The operation came hours after the appearance of al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. It was the first announced visit by an Iranian official two months following Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s visit to Iraq and less than a week after a trip to Iraq by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Baghdad.
Pompeo assured Iraqi officials of Washington’s readiness to support Iraq as long as it does not allow Iran to break the embargo by using Iraqi territory and the pro-Iran Iraqi militias to target US interests in Iraq.
Pompeo’s visit was accompanied by information circulated among Iraqi officials that Iraqi authorities were given a clear message from the US administration that “any attack by pro-Iranian parties on Washington’s interests would be answered by direct actions in Iran.”
This message, however, was followed by a position attributed to US President Donald Trump, reported by CNN, that Washington was expecting a call from Rohani.
Iranian reactions to the message were defiant and meant to escalate the conflict. Some leaders in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who openly oppose dialogue with Washington, publicly shared the message and referred to it as a sign that Iran’s position is strong and that Trump is trying to woo it but, of course, Tehran is not moved, even though it wishes to top this American affection with an agreement that would guarantee it the benefit of its achievements in the region.
Iran’s leaders know better than to trust Trump’s assurances about dialogue and his refusal to fight. In fact, the US warships and military land bases sprouting like wild mushrooms all around Iran — in the Gulf states, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and elsewhere — do not reassure Tehran. Add to that the fact that the US conditions for lifting the embargo are, in the eyes of the ideology governing the regime, conditions of surrender.
On the other hand, the Iranian regime, as it closely monitors US military preparations, finds itself exposed and vulnerable, given the absence of friends or allies. It realises that Russia and China are scrambling to secure gains Washington has been waiving at them and that those gains come from Iran’s share in the region.
Syria, for example, is Washington’s gift to Russia, provided Moscow drives Iran out of Syria. China is a candidate for tremendous investments in the region with Iran out of the picture.
In its confrontation with the Arab world, the Iranian leadership is good at only igniting wars and dividing societies. It is unable to offer any other project and, therefore, will not be able to react to the challenges imposed by Washington on its regional role and national economy except through more secret manoeuvring to avoid direct confrontation. Iran’s margin for manoeuvring, however, is shrinking as Washington widens its trade sanctions against it.
The incident in Fujairah confirmed that Iran’s brinkmanship policy has run its course and that, no matter how surprising its actions are, they have become quite predictable.
The Iranian regime needs to know that the option of sabotage is a double-edged sword, especially since the countries through which Iran can move easily because of its proxies are the countries that can no longer afford to withstand the consequences of its policy.
The Iranian regime might suggest that suicide is one of its options but experience has demonstrated that this option is only a propaganda weapon that worked in the context of Lebanon, for example, except that, in Lebanon, Iran was safe from painful consequences and could invest in causing disasters for others.
Today, Iran can no longer play that game because the whole world is willing to tolerate any American or Israeli military strike in the heart of Tehran.
Despite all that is said about the withdrawal of the Houthis from the ports of Hodeida in Yemen, it reveals that the Iranian leadership is willing to offer gifts to Trump to appease him while it parades and makes a lot of noise across the Arab region.