Iran’s shift from ‘heroic stability’ to balance of terror

Sabotage against cargo vessels and oil tankers demonstrated Tehran’s willingness to engage in much more risky operations.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Reuters)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Reuters)

“When facing a formidable opponent, wrestlers sometimes exercise ‘heroic flexibility,’” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said as he authorised President Hassan Rohani to engage in nuclear negotiations with the world powers in 2013.

Khamenei’s flexibility led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in July 2015.

Yet Khamenei was clearly not flexible enough for US President Donald Trump’s taste, who, following a barrage of criticism of his predecessor in office, withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and imposed America’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.

While Iran’s economy sank deeper into recession and inflation soared, the leadership in Tehran chose to maintain its commitments under the nuclear deal and adopted a policy of “strategic patience.”

However, waiting out Trump proved ineffective and, on the anniversary of the US withdrawal in May, Rohani announced Tehran’s intention to reactivate parts of its nuclear programme.

Rohani’s so-called “strategic initiative” was not Tehran’s only response. Sabotage against cargo vessels and oil tankers off Fujairah’s coast demonstrated Tehran’s willingness to engage in much more risky operations to reach “balance of terror” with Washington.

The development in the strategic thinking of the Iranian leadership is hardly surprising and was publicly debated a year ago. Addressing Iranian businessmen after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Abd al-Rasool Divsalar, a prominent strategic affairs analyst, proposed three scenarios.

In the first, Divsalar said: “Iran reaches an agreement with the EU, Russia and China and remains in the JCPOA… Europe provides acceptable assurances to Iran, meaning it guarantees oil sales.”

The weakness of that scenario, he warned, was “increased American pressure against Iran,” which he argued would result in “serious deterioration and depletion of economic and social resources.” This description roughly accounts for the regime’s policy of strategic patience.

In the second scenario, Divsalar predicted: “Iran may opt for a soft exit from the JCPOA and begins high percentage enrichment but will not engage in special activities concerning missile or regional issues.”

Just as remarkably, the prediction nicely fits president Rohani’s policy shift from strategic patience to the “strategic initiative” he announced in May but Divsalar also predicted Iran would face “considerable problems at home.”

Divsalar’s third scenario is that of “Iran’s hard exit from the JCPOA,” meaning “Iran, apart from high-level [uranium] enrichment also enhances the missile programme and engages in stronger punitive measures in the Strait of Hormuz, Syria and other countries in order to increase the cost of US policy.”

This scenario, Divsalar warned, is “risky” but he also found it rewarding: “It can be effective because it is capable of, through strong pressure, [creating] a new dynamic and [achieving] a terror balance. In circumstances, where the enemy has increased threats against Iran, Tehran reciprocates in kind and operationalises the balance of terror.”

With the risk of military confrontation close at hand, Divsalar predicted “conflict management structures at the international level, including Europe and even Arab states, will take more serious steps to control the crisis.”

We have yet to see Iran’s “hard exit” from the nuclear deal but the Fujairah incident is a clear realisation of “stronger punitive measures” he advocated a year ago. Reactions of the United States and American allies to a certain extent validate Divsalar’s strategic calculations but the events could just as well have gone terribly wrong.

The gamble of Iranian strategists, who desire to establish a balance of terror, may provoke a war Iran can ill afford.

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