Iran seeks to exploit internal U.S. disputes to defeat Washington - analysis

The US use of “messages” to Tehran only works if Iran believes the messages.

By
May 13, 2019 02:51
4 minute read.
Fan cheer at the US-Iran match in the 1998 World Cup.

US Iran fans at 1998 World Cup 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The US is sending “messages” to Iran through its latest moves and statements. National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the dispatch of B-52s and naval assets was a “clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that, “Any attacks by them [Iran] or their proxies against US citizens or our interests will be answered with a swift and decisive response.” Similarly, an official indicated that revealing US intelligence about Iranian threats was also a “message.”

Washington’s use of “messages” to Tehran only works if Iran believes the messages. But Iran has its own set of ready-made responses to recent US words and actions. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif mocks the messages as part of the “B-team” strategy, and says it reflects the fact that America is despised in the region and isolated. In recent days, Iran has sought to pressure Europe and encourage EU countries to work more closely with Tehran, arguing that the US is bullying Europe.

Iran has sought to rally its own people in support of its Supreme National Security Council and its stance on Europe. Articles in Fars News and Tasnim both sought to show popular support for Iran’s moves at this time of US pressure. The regime seeks to use Friday prayers and Ramadan as part of a popular rally supporting the government.

Iran’s leaders believe they can astutely read the US political landscape and that President Donald Trump faces challenges at home. For instance, they highlight new polling data that shows support for Trump’s impeachment. Iranian regime messaging openly plays into internal partisan disputes about foreign policy. For instance, they seek to portray the Trump administration as “Netanyahu firsters,” asserting that the US is conducting its foreign policy for Israel and that what is in America’s interests is not a conflict with Iran.

Iran reads US media and knows there is opposition to the administration’s Iran policy, as well as a widespread belief among Trump critics and foreign policy experts that Washington is seeking a collision course with Tehran to create a war. For instance, Vox reported that the recent moves by Trump make war more likely. The Economist calls it the “drums of war.” Foreign Policy had an article on May 7 noting that Trump’s foreign policy is becoming “dangerous.” Al-Jazeera calls it the “dangerous game.” The Guardian said on May 9 that the chance of war is “rising.” Politico argues that Trump is inching toward war.

ADDRESSING THESE concerns, Pompeo said that Washington doesn’t want war. There is a belief in the US that Trump’s foreign policy is “unraveling,” not just on Iran but also on North Korea, China and Venezuela. Foreign Affairs even devoted a whole issue to “searching for a strategy” for US policy, with such upbeat themes as, “America can’t do more with less,” “the new age of American restraint,” or “why US foreign policy will never recover.”

Iran is surely reading this and understanding that this is the real message that needs translation; how to translate US wariness for “forever wars” and its own internal disputes to Tehran’s benefit. The pressure on America, demanding European nations change their tune on Tehran in 60 days, is designed to outplay the US.

Meanwhile, Pompeo is supposed to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. He made a surprise visit to Iraq this week. Iran says that the US is also trying to pressure the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq to stop its political and economic outreach to Iran. Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki told US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David M. Satterfield that Iraq must not be used by the US for attacks on other countries. Maliki is widely seen as pro-Iranian.

At each juncture, Washington’s messaging does not correspond to US action – and adversaries such as Iran seem to understand that. At the same time, they understand that aspects of the messages point to possible US responses. For instance, an Iraqi commander of the mostly Shi’ite paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces said that the US faces trouble in Iraq and its bases could be targeted. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) responded that if any of the militias associated with the PMF, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, attack US forces, it would be considered an attack by Iran.

Iran and the PMF must tread carefully regarding these specific threats of retaliation. This has been the case since the summer of 2018 when the US first made this threat clear: that any attack by Iranian-backed proxies would be seen as an attack by Iran. But when it comes to larger “messages,” Washington and Tehran are in a war of words – and Iran is paying close attention to America’s internal discussions.

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