How the U.S.-Iran war-of-words could play out

Although most believe a direct confrontation is unlikely in the short-term, Tehran's regional expansionism could eventually place it in President Trump's crosshairs.

U.S., Iran exchange insults and warnings on world stage, September 26, 2018 (Reuters)
United States President Donald Trump continued his verbal assault on Iran from his pulpit at the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, calling on the international community to isolate the Islamic Republic which he described as the world's foremost "[state] sponsor of terrorism…[whose] leaders sow chaos, death and destruction." Hours later, in his own speech to the forum, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the "authoritarian" Trump administration of maintaining a "Nazi disposition" and reiterated a refusal to engage in direct negotiations with Washington.
The war-of-words comes on the heels of last week's attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz, which killed more than two dozen people including members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran blamed Washington of backing the perpetrators, with Qasem Soleimani, the notorious chief of the Quds Force—which spearheads Iranian military activities abroad—threatening to unleash the "gates of hell" on U.S. troops in the Middle East.
The comment was, in turn, addressed by American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told a gathering of the United Against Nuclear Iran organization that the White House "will hold Iran accountable for any attack on our interests and personnel in the region." For his part, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton at the same summit asserted that, "I assure [the mullahs] today: If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”
Tensions between the two nations boiled over in May when President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord and announced the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, the first batch of which took effect last month. Observers predict the stand-off will intensify moving forward, with a second tranche of financial penalties targeting the Islamic Republic's crucial energy and shipping sectors slated for implementation in November. Moreover, the back-and-forth rhetoric is, increasingly, becoming militaristic in nature, raising fears of a potential confrontation between the countries' armed forces.
"Words can manifest in conflicts on the ground, not only in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen as well," Professor Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University and an expert on the Middle East, contended to The Media Line. "In Syria, specifically, the boundaries are not quite clear so there can be an escalation and an engagement, especially if the Americans come along and say they do not want the Iranians operating in certain areas.
"With respect to Iraq," he elaborated, "there is presently little fighting going on and for the Iranians to turn it into a combat zone would be a mistake. If Iraq uses its proxies there against American assets this could result in a war. I do not think the [Iranian regime] will dare to play such games."
Tehran nevertheless appears to be pushing the envelope, testing President Trump's resolve by working to enhance its military capabilities throughout the Middle East. Notably, American Ambassador Nikki Haley last week affirmed at a UN Security Council meeting that, "in recent months, Iran’s aggression has escalated. Iranian proxies in Iraq operate openly, with funding, training, and weapons supplied by Tehran…[which] is reportedly developing the capability for its militias to produce their own missiles."
More broadly, top-ranking American officials have on numerous occasions called for Iranian troops, along with Hezbollah and allied Shiite mercenaries, to fully vacate Syria as the conflict winds down. Simultaneously, Washington is providing arms and tactical support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Dr. Ali Nouri Zadeh, Director of the London-based Center of Arab-Iranian Studies, believes that Tehran's course will in large part be determined by an ongoing internal struggle between hardline and more moderate regime elements. "There are people in Iran such as some Revolutionary Guard commanders who are not concerned about the US These individuals do not fear American power even though they do not necessarily want to attack the US, but, rather, perhaps its allies in the Gulf.
"Another train of thought," he expounded to The Media Line, "rejects a military clash because it is assumed the US response would bring Iran to its knees. [Proponents] of this position argue there needs to be a return to negotiations. There is still a chance that Tehran will come back to the table and, in fact, officials have told me that Iran is preparing to launch an initiative to diminish its influence in Yemen. This could reduce tensions with Riyadh and perhaps open the door to talks."
As regards Israel, the Islamic Republic alleged that it too had a hand in last week's attack in Ahvaz and warned of reprisals. Jerusalem has gone to great lengths to curb Iran's efforts to entrench itself in Syria, by conducting hundreds of cross-border military strikes against Iranian assets and weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some analysts thus view the Jewish state as a more plausible target should the mullahs choose to lash out.
"If the Iranians are looking for a quick and close reply while limiting the impact on international stability then Israel is right in front of them as well as the Saudis," Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, related to The Media Line. "However, Iran is reserving the option to attack Israel if ever [the Jewish state] abides by the Begin Doctrine [which demands that enemy nations be prevented at any cost from going nuclear], and it is improbable that Tehran would waste this strategic card now by creating a major conflict.
"The Iranians are leading [the Shiite] camp across the region and while Israel is trying to curb [this adventurism], it is only one party in the [mainly Sunni Arab] anti-Iran alliance," he continued. "The Islamic Republic therefore has many potential targets and given the nature of the American administration it would certainly think twice before doing something that might cause the White House to become unhinged. Irrespective of the bravado of the Revolutionary Guard, there is a good understanding of what would await."
Indeed, despite mounting pressure on Iran many hold that the regime remains rational and thus presently is unlikely to seek out a confrontation with the US Instead, they argue, Tehran will attempt to weather the financial storm in the short-turn by lobbying foreign governments to continue doing business-as-usual with it.
Concurrently, though, the Islamic Republic is liable to pursue its guiding, expansionist policy, a scenario that, by design or not, could eventually place it in America's crosshairs; at which point President Trump will be forced to decide whether to translate harsh words into even more severe concrete action.