Why the Iran-US standoff is going to get worse - analysis

Iran, however beat-up, is not tired or willing to change its goals, but is happy to fight and suffer – as long as it makes its adversaries to suffer also.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Thursday any U.S. or Saudi military strike against Iran would result in "all-out war" (photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Thursday any U.S. or Saudi military strike against Iran would result in "all-out war"
For those who think that the Iran-US standoff will start getting better because neither side wants a full-scale war and the ayatollahs are running out of gas, a recent video conference by the Proxy Wars Initiative painted a much darker picture.
On the one hand, it remains true that neither side genuinely wants war. But the depth of differences in how the sides perceive each other, their aggressive actions and their desired end strategies, makes it likely that violence and aggression albeit short of a full war will escalate going forward.
The most telling of all was an unusual presentation by Tehran University Prof. Hassan Ahmadian, who teaches and writes about Middle East and North African studies and also at the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran. Ahmadian is on a shortlist of elite academics who the Iranian government permits to speak publicly in the US and elsewhere, including time spent at the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as well as presentations at the International Institute for Peace in Vienna.
As part of the video conference, he was placed on a panel with top governmental foreign policy officials from other countries.  
Known for working hard to control information, it is rare that Iranians other than top officials – like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – speak in public forums, and some of the few others that do, like Seyed Hossein Mousavian who is a visiting scholar at Princeton, are sometimes viewed as informal ambassadors to influence public opinion, without the limits placed on Iranian officials who work directly for the government.  
At the same time, academics, politicians and members of the media in Iran who depart from the party line at home, let alone abroad, often face retaliation.
Ahmadian expressed what appears to be the mainstream view in Iran of the standoff, in a manner meant for consumption by Westerners.
He told the conference that US President Donald Trump “tried to box Iran into not having a single option, just capitulation. This is how Iranians here see it. You must capitulate or you will face regime change.”
“Iran has tried to bring its own options to the table. I think it has been successful to some extent,” Ahmadian said. “So Iran chose instead of capitulation… to resist within the JCPOA and outside,” referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: the Iran nuclear deal.
Tellingly, he added, “This has led to a different policy on the part of Iran away from the calm we saw after the JCPOA.”
ONE IMMEDIATE takeaway is that Tehran viewed the period after the JCPOA as one of calm.
This view is in some ways what has shaped the post-deal conflict between Iran on one side and the US, Israel and some of moderate Sunni Arab states on the other side.
To the extent that Iran limited its nuclear program and complied with the plan, the post-2015 deal period was calm.
But to the extent that Iran captured and temporarily detained a US naval vessel and escalated its adventurism in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, its adversaries viewed the post-JCPOA period as a seriously destabilizing disappointment.
True, the 2015 nuclear deal did not formally restrict Iranian expansionism in the region.
However, the Obama administration was operating under the premise – and the hope – that positive treatment by the West would get the Islamic Republic to dial down its fomenting instability.
If Iran views its actions post-JCPOA as “calm,” then there is little overlap for negotiation between the sides.
Ahmadian continued, “US policy has backfired with Iran being very active… the US tried to double down on its so far failed policy” of maximum pressure by assassinating Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
“I think this was an ill-advised policy coming out of the Washington bubble. Anyone with strategy would know this will not break,” Iran, he said.
Moreover, “Iran is under tremendous pressure, but has been under pressure for decades. Iranians see themselves at war – and the main objective in war is to outlast the adversary.”
THERE IS another key takeaway here: Iran views itself as prepared to suffer however long it needs to so it can “outlast” US pressure.
It does not need to beat the US head-to-head – it knows that is impossible.
But it clearly believes that time is on its side. Given sufficient patience, it believes that America will be the first to tire from a continued conflict, no matter how much more powerful it is – and no matter how miserable life is in Iran in the interim.
The killing of Soleimani was a victory for the US-Israel-moderate Sunni Arabs, in the sense that it shocked the Islamic Republic out of some of its aggressive actions in the short-term. Still, it did nothing to change Tehran's commitment to its nuclear program or to its long-term goals in the region.
Ahmadian then explained that Iran does not want direct military confrontation with the US, so he claimed Iran was not involved in recent attacks on the US. Rather, he said that Iran “is leaving the option to its allies, like Iraqi militias, and letting the US know it is not directly involved.”
Of course, regardless of who is firing any given rocket, Ahmadian said Iran’s message is, “If this is to hurt Iran, you will be hurt also.”
REGARDING ISRAEL and the moderate Sunni states, Ahmadian responded to attacks on Saudi Arabia and other oil facilities by saying that “Iran is not trying to hold hostage oil facilities… but the logic was telling and its neighbors understood the logic… Iran’s main problem is not with its Persian Gulf neighbors, but with the Israelis who are trying to set the agenda in the region.
“Israel is trying to negotiate about regional issues… these issues are very complicated,” he said. “They are targeting Iranians and their allies in Syria and Iraq… Iran is trying to avoid confronting Israel because it has other priorities in Syria and Iraq,” but he also hinted at a future, potentially broader confrontation.
Here, Ahmadian indicates that in the Iranian narrative, when they “leave the option” to its proxies in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon to carry out attacks on the US or its allies, no one can point the finger at them since they were not directly involved.
This interpretation portrayed a stunning turning-a-blind-eye approach. But the bottom line was unmistakably threatening: that even post-Soleimani, Tehran is ready to use its proxies to cause its adversaries harm.
Iran may have no end game for how to exit the standoff with the US – but that is an acceptable situation, as long as it is causing pain to those who cause it pain.
The Islamic Republic is willing to suffer for a virtually indefinite period to maintain the fictional separation between its nuclear program and its sponsoring instability in the region through proxies.
Further, it is holding on tight to its bizarre narrative in which Israel is the sole cause of all problems and that if only the moderate Arab Sunni countries calmed down and left Iran alone, they could unite with it once again against the Jewish state.
ON THIS POINT, Ahmadian was taken to task by another panelist: Alistair Burt, a former UK Minister of State for the Middle East. Burt said that, “It is not only Israel who is trying to include regional matters. My sense is that the other Gulf states are very conscious of Iranian activities in the region… They don’t support just to go back to the JCPOA as it was.”
In other words, Burt made it clear that the Sunni Arab states have been coordinating with Israel against Iran because of the ayatollahs’ attempts to expand Shi’ite influence at the expense of the Sunnis.
The moderate Sunni Arab states were not duped.
They view Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region as at least as serious a threat to themselves as Israel views Iran.
Neither the Sunni states nor Israel are at peace with the vague interests Tehran says it has in Syria, which they see as attempts to further threaten them.
Non-Shi’ite Iraqis are also not at peace with the Iran-US standoff in Iraq and do not just point the finger at America.
Rather, Lukman Faily, Iraq’s former ambassador to the US and current top aide to Iraq’s Kurdish president, said the “Iran-US fight has become a daily domestic issue,” and framed both sides as causing Iraq pain.
Faily said that Iraqis now suspect both Iran and the US as viewing Iraq as a means for their broader goals and enmities, as opposed to viewing it through the standard formula of positive bilateral relations.
The most striking response by Ahmadian regarding the feelings of Sunnis was that, “We are trying to help the Saudis get out of Yemen,” but implying that two were needed to tango in negotiations and that the Saudis have been stubborn.
Not that the Saudis’ hands are clean in Yemen, but this was another breathtaking sleight of hand. There is no debate that Iran’s sponsorship of the Shi'ite-related Houthis in Yemen at the expense of Yemen’s Sunnis predated and led to Saudi involvement.
Since Iran, however beat-up, is not tired or willing to change its goals, but is happy to fight and suffer – as long as it causes its adversaries to suffer – increased violence and tension, short of war, is probably the next item on the menu.