Iran’s proxies know their limits as next front line of showdown with US

There are few indications that Iranian surrogates are willing to opt for military escalation specifically because of their realistic assessment of the option and, in many cases, their awareness of their increasing weaknesses.
Sunday 28/04/2019
A Hezbollah supporter attends a rally in Beirut. (Reuters)
Heated rhetoric. A Hezbollah supporter attends a rally in Beirut. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iran’s proxies appear unlikely to retaliate against US interests in the Middle East despite decisions by Washington to increase pressure on Tehran.

The Trump administration announced that sanctions waivers for importation of Iranian oil would be reduced to “zero level” after they expire May 2.

“The Trump administration and our allies are determined to sustain and expand the maximum economic pressure campaign against Iran to end the regime’s destabilising activity threatening the United States, our partners and allies, and security in the Middle East,” read a White House statement April 22.

“The president’s decision to eliminate all SREs (Significant Reduction Exceptions) follows the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, demonstrating the United States’ commitment to disrupting Iran’s terror network and changing the regime’s malign behaviour,” the statement added.

The United States said it would not sanction foreign governments and businesses that have dealings with the IRGC and its affiliates, such as al-Quds Force. Nevertheless, the United States imposed sanctions on entities accused of aiding Lebanon’s Hezbollah evade Washington’s sanctions against the Iran-backed group.

Countries benefiting from the US waivers are China, India, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Iraq has a waiver on importing Iranian electricity and gas that will end in June.

In recent months, the United States has imposed punitive measures, which include sanctions and terror designations, against Iranian proxies.

Even before the waivers expire, Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq have been feeling the pain of sanctions.

“Quantifying the strain on this network is difficult because Iranian support is covert and beneficiaries rarely discuss their finances but interviews with fighters, officials and analysts who track the issue made the economic pain clear,” the New York Times reported.

While it remains unclear if the pain translates into a reversal of policy by Iran and its allies, there are few indications that Iranian surrogates are willing to opt for military escalation specifically because of their realistic assessment of the option and, in many cases, their awareness of their increasing weaknesses.

In Iraq, more members of the country’s Shia community are turning against Iran, which they blame for the Arab country’s woes. This has led many in Iraq’s political class to distance themselves from Tehran.

Hard-line Iraqi supporters of Iran may be more concerned with keeping their positions of influence inside Iraq — with Iranian help — than in engaging in a military confrontation with the United States. Bills in the Iraqi parliament that call for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq are unlikely to pass.

In fact, the Iraqi government appears ready to benefit from the effect of the expiration of US waivers by announcing that Baghdad is ready to boost its oil output should the market need. Iraq, which relies on oil exports for most of its revenues, also stands to benefit from oil price hikes.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad owes its survival at least partially to help from Tehran but conditions in Syria are unlikely to allow it to make any military escalation on Iran’s behalf.

Hezbollah, under frequent Israeli air strikes in Syria, is likely to seek to continue its activities in Syria and Lebanon but does not appear to be looking forward to engaging Israel and much less the United States in a full-blown war.

Hezbollah’s intention could be inferred from its measured reaction to Israel’s destruction of its tunnels on the Lebanese-Israeli border last December. The issue of US waivers may not be worth the risk of war that could weaken the group’s grip on the Lebanese government.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels are still battling the Saudi-led coalition supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government. They have fired missiles towards Riyadh and vowed to reach “strategic” targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Any strikes they could carry out are unlikely to be as strategic as they describe them and would be operations of opportunity rather than dictated by retaliation against increased pressure on Iran. In any case and despite their inflated rhetoric, the Houthis are wary of provoking unwanted regional and international reactions as UN-sponsored talks on Yemen continue.

Iran itself appears aware that military measures, such as blocking the Strait of Hormuz, are unrealistic threats meant for domestic consumption. Furthermore, guessing that effective escalation would not be in its own interest, Tehran has signalled its readiness to “negotiate” with the United States, even if it attached unattainable conditions, such as an apology from Washington, to such negotiations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he believes that US President Donald Trump does not want war with Iran but that the US president could be lured into a conflict by hawks in his administration.

A realistic Zarif said his country’s immediate intent is not confrontation but sidestepping the sanctions. “There are always ways of going around the sanctions. We have a PhD in that area,” he told Reuters.

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