Why you should care
America’s tightening sanctions are damaging Iran’s economy, but that’s unlikely to change its behavior, experts say.
Flanked by generals on both sides, President Hassan Rouhani watched as Iranian soldiers carrying huge portraits of fallen “martyrs” paraded in Tehran, warplanes swooped overhead and military trucks rumbled past hauling massive missiles. Yet Army Day, an annual show of military strength and resilience in the face of years of sanctions and arms embargoes, has rarely been marked with the theocratic regime under such intense pressure.
One year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers, the stakes are again being raised in a dispute some fear could trigger the Middle East’s next conflict.
Those concerns intensified last week with the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the region, and the unscheduled visit of Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, to neighboring Iraq. Pompeo warned that the regime in Tehran was “escalating their activity,” without providing any detail. Within hours, Rouhani said Iran would no longer comply with some of its commitments to the nuclear deal while insisting that the Islamic republic would continue diplomatic efforts but “with a new language and logic.”
One of the biggest mistakes the U.S. is making is thinking the sanctions can make the regime surrender to concessions.
“Iran and the U.S. are not heading towards a war,” says one regime insider in Tehran, “but we may witness some clashes that would then lead to negotiations rather than a full-scale war.”
Any such clashes are most likely to involve regional proxies. The military parade on April 19 came just days after the U.S. president designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, escalating his pushback against the Islamic republic. Through its overseas wing, the Quds Force, the IRGC is at the front line of Tehran’s support for militias and proxies across the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen.
And it is this factor — Iran’s muscular regional power — that infuriates the Trump administration and its Middle Eastern allies and goes to the core of their accusations against Tehran: that it is meddling in Arab affairs and stoking instability across the region. The U.S. still has hundreds of troops in Syria and an estimated 5,000 in Iraq. Analysts warn that an asymmetric conflict, with American soldiers targeted by Iran-allied militias, is a simmering threat.
The crucial question now is whether Trump’s efforts to strangle Iran economically will force Tehran to retreat or embolden hard-liners opposed to Rouhani, one of the architects of the nuclear deal. The hard-liners believe the U.S. president’s actions vindicate their stance that the regional role is more important than ever. At stake is the balance of power in a region where the Persian and mainly Shiite country’s main Sunni Arab rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are pursuing more aggressive policies.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said in early May that he did not think a military confrontation would occur. But he added that the Trump administration is “putting things in place for accidents to happen.”
At the parade ground in Tehran last month, it was not only military hardware on display but also a show of defiance. Rouhani insisted Iran’s goal was regional stability. He delivered a speech laced with attacks on the U.S. and its allies. And he mocked American leaders as “delusional,” praised the IRGC’s achievements and called on regional nations to cooperate to “clean the region from intruders.”
“The collaboration of the popular forces [militias] of the region with the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at its best situation ever,” he told the crowd.
Such bravado cannot, however, mask the economic impact the U.S.’ punitive measures are having on Iran, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting that gross domestic product will shrink by 6 percent this year. But Trump lacks global support for his tough stance, with Europe, Russia and China continuing to back the nuclear deal. And there is skepticism that economic pressure alone will force Iran into concessions on issues it regards as central to its national security — from its regional presence to an expanded ballistic missile program.
“We never thought a grand bargain was achievable,” a European diplomat says. “Asking them to abandon these policies effectively means asking them to give up on the regime and they’re not prepared to do that. … If the Shah was in power, he wouldn’t [agree to] all these things [either].”
A senior Arab official from a country that cheered Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal says there now needs to be a “political parallel” beside the U.S. pressure to engage on the three key issues: the nuclear deal, the regional role and ballistic missiles. “You have to give the other party a way out,” the official says.
Tehran’s calculation will take into account the evidence that it’s now at “peak” influence in the region, with proxies and allies deeply entrenched in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, says the European diplomat. “This is probably the high point of Iranian reach.”
Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says under the current U.S. strategy there “is no realistic scenario in the foreseeable future where Iran relies less on or downgrades its allies and partners.”
“The U.S. maximalist strategy is inflicting some serious pain, but it is [not] changing the behavior of its adversaries,” he says. “Iran’s network of regional partners is an inherent part of Tehran’s security apparatus. It allows Iran to project soft power in the region but also to exert coercion and the threat of coercion in ways that can be quite subtle, all this at low cost and some disingenuous deniability.”
The U.S. and Arab states have fretted over Iran’s regional ambitions ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But from an Iranian perspective, it was the decision by Western and Arab states to back Saddam Hussein during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War that still shapes the regime’s thinking.
“Our defense is our defense,” says Hossein Sheikholeslam, a former senior diplomat. “We’re not going to discuss it with anybody because when the country was under pressure by Saddam — the missiles the West sold them [Iraq] … we demanded they stop and they did nothing.”
Huge, somber murals of soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq conflict that cost at least half a million lives are emblazoned on the sides of office and residential blocks across Tehran — a reminder of Iranians’ sacrifices. National security is one area where regime hard-liners and reformers have tended to agree, including on the need for Iran to project its influence through allies and proxies.
Tehran’s official line on Syria is that it is supporting the legitimate government, working to end the conflict and fighting ISIS. Its forces and foreign militias such as the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have helped the regime of Bashar al-Assad brutally quell the eight-year rebellion. But analysts say Syria, a Sunni-majority country led by an Alawite minority, is crucial to Iran’s regional ambitions as its military presence in the war-torn nation provides it a potential “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Israel has launched scores of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years, including what it says are military facilities.
On Iraq, there is a consensus that the Islamic republic has genuine security concerns, including preventing the ISIS threat spilling across its borders, as well as important economic ties — trade between the two countries is worth $12 billion a year. But the West harbors deep concerns about Tehran’s influence over powerful Shiite militias, some of which the U.S. designates as terrorist.
The U.S. and its allies helped Iran by toppling Saddam in 2003, and paving the way for Iraq’s Shiite majority, many of them with ties to Iran, to take power. A U.S. Army review of the war published in January said an “emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” of the 2003 invasion.
The battle against ISIS deepened Iran’s influence as the Quds Force went to the aid of Iraq’s security forces as the jihadis advanced on Baghdad in 2014. Many of the Iraqi militias that joined a paramilitary force, known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), had been armed and trained by Iran.
Today, the PMU boasts more than 100,000 fighters and its political wing, Fatah, is integral to Baghdad’s coalition government after securing the second most seats in parliamentary elections last year. As a result, some analysts liken the PMU to Hezbollah or the Revolutionary Guards because of its ties to Iran. Sheikholeslam does not shy away from Iran’s link to the militias. “We used to train them; when you teach somebody, you have good leverage,” he says.
In Yemen, the move by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to lead a coalition to fight Iran-aligned Houthi rebels created another opening for Tehran, analysts say. The Houthis, members of the Zaidi Shiite sect, turned to Iran for support, extending its influence.
Riyadh and Washington accuse Tehran of supplying arms to the Houthis, including missiles fired at Saudi cities as a civil conflict has morphed into another proxy war. Iran denies the allegations and analysts say that its role in Yemen is more opportunistic than strategic.
“If you think that we are sending missiles to Yemen, it’s not right, but if you think that this expertise that exists in Yemen came from Iran, you’re right,” says Sheikholeslam.
Still, the regime’s careful attempt to paint a picture of unity in defiance of U.S. pressure was undermined by Zarif’s shock resignation as foreign minister in February. The catalyst for the veteran diplomat’s fit of frustration was his sidelining during Assad’s first visit to Iran since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.
While Zarif was apparently unaware of the visit, the Syrian president enjoyed a warm embrace with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who ultimately determines foreign policy, and sat alongside Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force.
In an interview with an Iranian newspaper around the same time, Zarif implied that Tehran was missing an opportunity by not using its regional influence as leverage at the negotiating table. “Any achievements we had in foreign policy were the result of negotiations,” he said.
Zarif withdrew his resignation, but the incident was a reminder that real power is unlikely to shift from Khamenei and his military leaders, chief among them Soleimani.
For years, the charismatic general operated largely in the shadows, but as Iran’s role has expanded in Iraq and Syria, so too has his public profile. Often pictured with fighters in Iraq and Syria, Soleimani is considered central to Iran’s regional activities — despised by U.S. and Arab officials, but also respected as a foe, while celebrated as a national hero by many Iranians.
“The cards are in the hands of the guards and they don’t listen to Rouhani,” says an Iranian linked to regime hard-liners.
Even if there were more pragmatic voices within the regime who would consider negotiating security issues with the West, Iranians believe such a scenario would be difficult as long as Trump is in office.
Ali Shakouri-Rad, a reformist politician, says there are differences of opinion within the regime over foreign policy, with reformers wanting to prioritize domestic issues while “our opponents prioritize regional issues.” But he adds that any critical debate has been muted by U.S. actions. “One of the biggest mistakes the U.S. is making is thinking the sanctions can make the regime surrender to concessions … the U.S. is passing the ball to the hard-liners,” he says.
The result is that it is U.S. administration hawks and Iranian hard-liners who are dictating the discourse with threats and counterthreats.
“The more the enemy threatens us, the higher will be the costs for them,” Soleimani told a military gathering last week. “Our people … will not go under such humiliation.”
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