Analysis

A Smokescreen of Threats as Iran Grapples to Avenge Its Honor

Iran blows off nuclear pact, Iraqi parliament calls for ouster of troops, and Trump threatens sanctions on Iraq

Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, the newly appointed commander of the country's Quds Force, during the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran January 6, 2020.
OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/ REU

>> UPDATE: Iran launches over a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq

American citizens living in Iraq have been ordered to fortify their homes well and stay close to shelters. American soldiers in Iraqi military camps, where they are training Iraqi Army fighters, are bringing in reinforcements and putting sandbags and concrete blocks around their quarters. Three of the Western coalition countries that are fighting against the Islamic State announced they were freezing their activities to increase protection for their soldiers.

Since the Iranian leadership and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have opened the hunting grounds to include American targets, and following the missile and mortar fire on American bases in Iraq after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, tactical defenses have turned into an immediate strategy against threats. Because if Iran decides to attack American and pro-American targets, it needn’t go very far. In Afghanistan and Iraq there are enough available American targets, as well as in northern Syria.

But Iran is still restrained by the same dilemma it has faced ever since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement and imposed painful sanctions on Tehran: What is the limit of effective response that could cause an American turnabout but not turn Iran into a legitimate battle target? To this dilemma the killing of Soleimani added another consideration: the need to avenge the blow to Iran’s honor.

Activist protest outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, on January 4, 2020.
AFP

Four critical questions ■ To avert war with Iran, Trump will need all the sophistication he sorely lacks ■ Overseas Black Ops units await Iran's signal to strike ■ Iran's 'crushing revenge' may prove formidable challenge for Soleimani's successor ■ Soleimani's successor must contend with the enemy within

Throughout the series of attacks on Gulf targets, Saudi oil facilities and bases in Iraq where American fighters reside, Iran intended to demonstrate its ability to disrupt maritime traffic in the Gulf, hoping to cause international panic that would bring about a change in the sanctions policy. Its interpretation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s lack of response was that hitting individual targets would not result in a comprehensive counterattack, but could help enlist the support of some European countries, the oil industry and even the Gulf states.

One of the bonuses Iran got from this attack policy was the United Arab Emirates’ withdrawal of its forces from Yemen and its signing a military cooperation agreement with Iran, a move that halted Houti attacks on the emirates’ targets. The attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September was an important test of the pinpoint attack strategy, since the scope of the attack and the damage caused was a test of American readiness to attack Iran for hitting one of its allies.

For Iran it was a successful test. Trump hastened to clarify that Saudi Arabia was the one to decide if and how it wanted to respond, and the United States would be at its disposal – for a price, of course. Saudi Arabia declared that it was against a war with Iran, and with that drew the boundaries of the anti-Iran coalition. But Iran’s successes didn’t relieve it of its main problem, since there was no change in the U.S. sanctions policy.

Iranians gather around a vehicle carrying the caskets of slain military commander Qasem Soleimani in the northeastern city of Qom on January 6, 2020.
AFP

Nor did the policy of “reduced commitment to the nuclear agreement” – meaning measured and planned violations of the 2015 agreement in an effort to expedite international discussion about removing sanctions – achieve Iran’s desired result. The EU countries were unable to implement a plan by French President Emmanuel Macron to circumvent the sanctions, while Russia and China proved to be quiet allies that may have been able to prevent new sanctions in international forums like the UN Security Council, but were unable to remove existing ones.

This week Iran went to the edge in terms of violating the agreement when it announced that it saw itself freed of any restrictions the agreement imposes, both in the amount of uranium it could enrich and its quality, and that from now on it would enrich uranium in keeping with its “technical needs.”

It should be noted that even here, Iran was careful not to provide a casus belli. It did not specify what those technical needs are – to produce electricity, to do nuclear research or to build nuclear weapons – and it continued to express its commitment to return to observing the agreement if the United States removed its sanctions. It also stated it would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran is again testing how much the United States and the EU are willing to accept. Iran is well aware that there is a “tolerable” limit and there are risks involved in violating it, but this is not a “stress test” for the Western states or for Israel. It is portraying them as lacking any effective strategy that could restore the validity of the nuclear agreement or, alternately, to punish Iran militarily.

Khamenei and Rohani pray near the coffin of Qassem Soleimani, Tehran, January 6, 2019.
OFFICIAL PRESIDENT'S WEBSITE/

Despite the difficulties posed by American economic sanctions, the United States hasn’t succeeded in crushing the Iranian economy, and there is no certainty that the military option will ever be used given Trump’s reluctance to reengage militarily in the Middle East. Iran may have been pushed to the wall financially, but the West finds itself in a diplomatic cage with decreasing room to maneuver, unless a channel is opened for rational dialogue with Iran.

The question is how Trump will address the violations of an agreement he has already withdrawn from. Will enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent be considered crossing a line en route to obtaining nuclear weapons? Will he, like his predecessor Barack Obama, have to negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over when Iran will be considered capable of building a bomb?

Trump isn’t falling into that trap. It’s easier to threaten to bomb Iranian cultural sites in response to harming American citizens and soldiers, as he did Sunday, than to draw up a plan that will extract the region and the world from the threat that he caused when he pulled out of the nuclear agreement.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament has passed a bill calling on the government to rid Iraq of all foreign forces. While it still requires cabinet approval, Trump rushed to threaten to impose harsh sanctions on Iraq that would make those on Iran look pale by comparison. But what would that accomplish? At a time when American strongholds in the Middle East are evaporating, disconnecting from Iraq would turn it into an Iranian satellite. This would actually be a threat to American allies in the region, including Israel.

Instead of escalating threats, what is needed is swift and sober mediation and international determination to stop the deteriorating atmosphere and put the genies back in their bottles. It’s doubtful, however, that there’s anyone now willing or able to take on this mission.