Iran’s tough talk only hides its weaknesses

Iran is still a player in Syria but it is no longer a major player.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Self-delusion. A clergyman takes a picture of a pro-government demonstration in the south-western city of Ahvaz, last January. (AP)
Self-delusion. A clergyman takes a picture of a pro-government demonstration in the south-western city of Ahvaz, last January. (AP)

Is the Iranian regime strong or weak? The question comes to the fore because of deteriorating living conditions in Iran.

The city of Isfahan, for example, is without water because its water table has been depleted. Still, Iran continues to flex its muscles outside its borders.

A high-ranking officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recently boasted that both the Syrian and the Iraqi armies would be used to shield the “Islamic Republic.” If that is not a game of intimidating neighbours and blackmailing the United States, I don’t know what it is.

Iranian Brigadier-General Hussein Salami, IRGC deputy commander, said “it is illogical for any country to limit its security zone to its borders. We consider the Syrian Army and the Iraqi Army as strategic depth for us.” He added that “the best strategy for engaging the enemy is from afar.”

This clearly shows that, in case of a confrontation with the United States, Iran is ready to move the battlefront to Iraq and Syria where US troops are stationed.

Iran is trying to intimidate Arab countries and push the United States towards concluding a new deal. The United States, however, has exposed the Iranian regime’s weaknesses. True, the United States has, on many occasions, done great services to the Iranian regime, including handing it Iraq on a silver platter. The United States, however, can show Tehran’s weakness any time because of its economic and technological power.

The United States is willing to bide its time to achieve a victory. It can afford to make mistakes, as it did in Vietnam and in Iraq. In the 1970s, Vietnam was the place to be for any revolutionary hothead wishing to rub America’s imperial nose in the mud. In the end, Vietnam may have won the battle in 1975 but lost the war. Now, Hanoi is welcoming US companies with open arms.

Even China is smart enough not to start a direct confrontation with America. To protect its economic interests, modern China got rid of Mao Zedong’s crippling ideology and tackled its numerous internal problems rather than ignoring them and engaging in a race with the United States outside Chinese borders. Thanks to that simple strategic choice, China is the second economic powerhouse in the world. Is there a lesson in that for Iran?

What Iran seems to want is to appear to be the dominant power in the region and that’s because the Trump administration wants to get rid of former US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran. The Trump administration wants to prevent Iran from using that deal to score more victories in the region, hence conditioning the deal on Iran’s foreign policies and its ballistic missile programme.

Iran’s vulnerability was exposed when it had to ask for Russia’s help to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. It should not be forgotten that, in September 2015 — before Russia’s involvement in Syria was announced — Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s al-Quds Force and the real commander of the sectarian militias in Syria, was in Moscow.

It should also be remembered that Russia is not committing its forces in Syria out of charity or just to please Iran. Moscow has excellent relations with Israel and the latter will do what it can to limit Iran’s regional influence and keep Assad’s regime in place. To finish with Syria and the Golan Heights once for all, it is crucial for Israel that Assad’s regime survives.

On the regional level, Russia’s direct intervention in Syria was a turning point. That intervention did not occur in a vacuum but was accompanied by an agreement with the United States on the broad lines guiding the presence of both superpowers in Syria. The US presence would cover the rich areas east of the Euphrates. There was also a role conceded to Turkey inside Syria such that there is more than one regional player in the Syrian theatre.

Iran is still a player in Syria but it is no longer a major player. This fact explains the haughty tone of officials in Tehran. The tactic reflects the Iranian regime’s desperate attempts to cover up its non-stop failures in Syria.

To compensate for these failures, the mullahs’ regime acts tough in Iran or Lebanon or Yemen or now in Bahrain. Perhaps the mullahs and their dictatorship would be better served by solving the water shortage in Isfahan than by using the question of Jerusalem to score points against the Arabs.