Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks on a red carpet in Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US withdrew in May from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In the face of impending new American sanctions on oil exports, Iran President Hassan Rouhani warned his adversary in Washington: “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret…”
Alas, Tehran’s leader has forgotten the more significant lesson of the ancient and wise Persian proverb that “even with the strength of an elephant and the paws of a lion, peace is better that war.” Indeed, it perhaps is a last diplomatic opportunity for Iran to enter a constructive dialogue with the US and the concerned states. In his speech, Rouhani threatened the “mother of all wars” if the US pursued hostile policies against Iran, but then called for improved relations with its Arab neighbors. Earlier, Iranian officials had implied that Iran would block all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf if the US blocked its oil exports.
President Donald Trump’s response, in keeping with his approach of applying “maximum pressure, was to say that the tragic alternative for Iran is to “suffer consequences likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, responded, “Mr. Trump how dare you threaten us…. You will start the war, but it is us who will end it.” As earlier with North Korea, this may be an opportune time for Trump and Rouhani to come together for talks, perhaps in Qatar, which has good relations with both countries.
While Rouhani said that Iran wanted peace with its Arab neighbors, Tehran’s regional objectives suggest otherwise. Specifically, to pursue its objectives, Iran still has its eyes on building a corridor through Syria and Iraq to the sea in its quest for regional domination. North Korea continues to be a major proliferator of conventional weapons to Iran in Syria, as well as to the Assad regime in a long-standing relation, despite UN sanctions against North Korea and their more vigorous enforcement. With this growing Iranian threat in Syria, Russia appears to be doing a balancing act, allowing Israel to openly attack Iranian military positions and weapons factories and arms caches inside Syria and respond to Iranian drone strikes.
The Israeli air force attack in April on a major depot in Homs, north of Aleppo, Syria, was officially reported as destroying some 200 Iranian surface-to-surface missiles and killing 16 people, including 11 Iranians, all without any subsequent response. This was preceded by an attack earlier in April on the nearby Syrian T4 airbase in Hama, where Iran was setting up a large independent air force compound and which also hosted the drone operations of Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Most recently, on July 24, a Syrian Soviet-era Su-22 fighter jet that took off from the T4 base and penetrated 2 kilometers into the Golan was downed by two Israeli Patriot missiles. Previously, in February, an Iranian attack drone from the T4 base entered Israel and was shot down, but this time with the loss of an Israeli F-16 fighter.
In a further step, during the press conference following the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit, Russian president Putin called for full compliance in the south of Syria with the 1974 treaty between Israel and Syria on the separation of forces there. Putin’s statement reinforced earlier reports of Russia ordering Iran’s forces out of southern Syria, at least 60 miles from Syria’s border with the Israeli- occupied Golan Heights, and also not contesting Israeli strikes against Iran’s proxies throughout Syria.
NEVERTHELESS, IRAN, risking war with Israel or perhaps with Saudi Arabia, appears intent on keeping close to its terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah in Lebanon, with over 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen, who have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia and made a drone attack on the Aramco refinery in the capital, Riyadh.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that any semblance of a peaceful standoff in Syria between Iran and Israel will last without continued attention and pressure from Russia and the United States. The failure of the standoff in Syria would divert attention from Iran ramping up production at home in its uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, in a step toward a nuclear bomb in response to the inevitable collapse of the nuclear deal, following the US withdrawal and the re-imposition of sanctions.
In sum, Iran faces an uncertain future in Syria because of inherent instabilities there. Its regional and global activities related to proliferation and in support of terrorist proxies conflict with its need for peaceful relations with its neighbors, if it is to survive. Before a dooms day scenario unfolds, it would be wise for Tehran to employ constructive diplomacy. In this, it should rather be guided by yet another Persian maxim, “Don’t do the worst you can to your enemy for perchance he may become your friend.”
Yonah Alexander is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York and currently director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.
Milton Hoenig, a nuclear physicist, is a consultant.