Iran’s ayatollahs stay up all night wondering, what’s next?

“The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over."

Iranian-made Fateh 110 (Conqueror) (L) and Persian Gulf (R) missiles are seen next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a war exhibition in Tehran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian-made Fateh 110 (Conqueror) (L) and Persian Gulf (R) missiles are seen next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a war exhibition in Tehran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s been a difficult weekend for Iran’s leaders.
“The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” said US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn on February 3. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters in Tokyo that “as far as Iran goes this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”
At the same time Donald Trump’s administration hit 12 companies and 13 individuals with sanctions on Friday. Trump also fired at Iran on Twitter. “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the US has squandered three trillion dollars there,” he wrote on February 1.
“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.Should have been more thankful for the terrible deal the US made with them!” he wrote the next day.
“Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
The fact that the Trump administration would bring an about-face on Iran was clear from the campaign season. Trump savaged the Iran deal in an October debate with Hillary Clinton.
“Iran, who you made very powerful, the dumbest deal perhaps I’ve ever seen in the history of deal-making,” the candidate said.
Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency until August 2014, was also a hardliner on Iran. He told Congress in 2015 that Iran had the intention to build a nuclear weapon, was stonewalling the IAEA and that “Iran killed or maimed thousands of Americans and Iraqis” between 2003 and 2011. He also warned of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Even though every US administration seeks to put its own imprint on foreign policy, the tendency is toward consistency and incrementalism. Foreign policy advisers will always urge caution and moderate “diplomatic” language in any changes. Major policy initiatives often take years to put into place.
Obama’s Iran deal came after long negotiations. Iran has also made a keen study of US policy-making. It played into the aspirations and fantasies of Obama’s foreign policy team to such a degree that it basically outsourced part of its foreign policy to Washington, so that Obama’s team was working overtime to place positive articles and op-eds supporting the deal and the image of Iran as a “moderate” country. Iran constantly tests the US and others to see what kind of deterrence will be put in place.
Iran operates through proxies and Shi’ite allies in the region. In Yemen it has encouraged its Houthi allies to harass ships off the coast that are part of the coalition aiding the Houthi’s enemies in Yemen. In October of 2016 surface-to-surface missiles were fired at the USS Mason, USS Nitze and USS Ponce off the Yemen coast, according to reports. A UAE ship was also hit by an anti-ship missile in October, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly. In the latest incident, a Saudi frigate was attacked on January 30.
Flynn reminded reporters of Iran’s role in “destabilizing” the Middle East and using boats to harass others in his statement. He mentioned the abduction of 10 US sailors in January 2016 and “unwarranted harassment of vessel traffic and repeated weapons tests. Just this week, Iran tested a ballistic missile, and one of its proxy terrorist groups attacked a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea.”
Iran honed its harassment tactics in the 1980s during the war with Iraq. In tit-for-tat attacks on shipping Iran consistently upped its game. “Iran’s methods of attack, in contrast to Iraq’s, showed considerable variety and change over the course of the year. When one tactic proved ineffective... Iran shifted to another,” read a report by Ronald O’Rourke in the May 1988 issue of Proceedings, the US Naval Institute magazine. Iran sought to test US capabilities. In 1987 it sent F-4 fighter jets to harass the US Navy, and Iranian speedboats repeatedly fired at US ships.
Thirty years later little has changed. Iran has learned time and again that its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guards Corps can sleep quietly while proxies and forces stir up trouble. A tweet by @ RevolutionSyria, which supports the Syrian rebels, mocked Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday: “Russia, Iran’s mullah, Hezbollah and [Shi’ite] Iraqis are liberating Syria from Syrians for me.” Besides Russia’s inclusion on that list, the rest of the groups are all connected to Iran.
Now things are changing. Those who oppose Trump’s more aggressive policy accuse the administration of “empowering hardliners” and accuse Trump of seeking a needless foreign war to boost his popularity. The reality is that there are no Iranian “hardliners,” in this context. Iran’s “moderate” politicians have supported the most warlike period in Iran since the early 1980s.
Never has Iran sought to export its policy as much as it has in the past few years. It has exploited the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) and the breakdown of countries to embolden its friends. It has also actively recruited tens of thousands of Shi’ite volunteers from places like Afghanistan, many of them misled through false promises or threats, to lay down their lives for Assad. And it has not rolled back its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Trump administration’s focus on Iran’s role in the region, rather than grandstanding about the nuclear issue, is a welcome departure from misleading policies of the past. The nuclear program was never as important as understanding the overall Iranian policy in the region and the world. Most importantly the comments of Flynn, Mattis and Trump have caused the Iranian regime to worry about what comes next. Iran relies on studying its enemies and knowing how they will retaliate.
For instance Hezbollah involvement in Syria has not resulted in destabilization of Lebanon. It knows the West fears conflict, and it carefully studies how US diplomats such as former secretary of state John Kerry respond to the crossing of “red lines.” But Trump’s team is a nightmare for Tehran.
Just as Richard Nixon sought to employ the notion that Nixon was “crazy” to encourage the Vietnamese to respect US threats, it is to the US advantage to be unpredictable. But that hasn’t stopped Iran. The missile test in late January was designed to see what kind of blowback there would be.
Now Iran’s “good cop, bad cop” claim of hardliner “bogeymen” has conjured up hardliners in Washington who don’t accept the regime’s narrative. Maybe a real “bad cop” will have to sink a few Iranian attack boats in the Gulf to show Tehran the US means business. Either way, the ayatollahs, who have gotten used to bluster and burning US flags, won’t be sleeping as well in the near future. Perhaps at long last the US will begin to support efforts, including supporting rights for domestic groups such as Kurds, Baloch and others, to confront the regime.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.