Monday, June 17, 2019

Iran is playing with fire - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Iran is hoping to pressure the US into easing sanctions via terrorist attacks. The US will have to deal with the ayatollah regime a serious blow, not only to deter it but to prevent future escalation.

Iran is playing with fire
An Iranian navy boat tries to stop the fire on an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13 | Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Handout via Reuters

The terrorist attacked perpetrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most recent being directed against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, are more proof of the pressure that Tehran is feeling from the harsh U.S. sanctions. Washington is slowly strangling the Iranian economy, and the ayatollahs are finding it difficult to find a way out of noose they feel tightening around their necks. The Europeans, as they usually do, are expressing understanding of Tehran’s difficulties but not doing anything to help it. Whereas Russia and China, the ayatollah regime’s most important allies, are not known for handing out bonbons – and even if they wanted to help Iran, their economic ability to do so is limited.

The Iranians thought they could hold on until the 2020 US elections, in the hope that if a new government were voted in, pressure from Washington on Tehran would ease up. But the Iranian economy has collapsed faster than officials in Tehran thought it would, and the economic distress has led to increased civil protests within Iran. The budget hardships also forced Iran to slash the generous aid it provided to its various satellites throughout the Middle East, including Hezbollah and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his close associates, who supposedly belong to the moderate camp, have tried in vain to find a diplomatic solution through the friends of Iran in Europe, and even seek the help of Russia and China. It quickly became clear that both Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are the tail of the dog and it’s the Revolutionary Guards who decide on policy in Iran. The Guards want to maintain their power and promote terrorism throughout the Middle East, even if Iranian citizens are the ones who have to pay the price.

Therefore, the Iranians have decided to turn up the flames, hoping that the Americans will agree to ease the sanctions as a way of avoiding any escalation that would hurt US allies in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, leaders in Tehran are hoping that Europe and possibly even some Gulf states will cave in the face of terrorism and urge Washington to give up its policy or take action themselves to placate Iran.

Iran is a paper tiger. While it is capable of making its neighbors’ lives miserable and spreading terrorism throughout the region, when it is confronted directly and red lines are drawn – and when other nations are poised to strike – Iran falls back. That is what happened in Syria, for example, where Israel managed to check Iranian attempts to entrench itself in a position to face off against Israel. Besides which, Iran does not have the capabilities to withstand American power if the latter were ever turned on Tehran with full forces.

Tehran is hoping that it can keep walking a tightrope and believes that through threats and terrorism, it will achieve its goals and avoid total economic collapse. It appears that the Iranians are taking heart from the lukewarm response from the international community and especially the US’s conduct, which they perceive as weak and hesitant. In the end, the Middle East is like the Wild West – anyone who wants to shoot, should shoot, or else the threat will carry no weight.

It cannot be denied that the US is sending mixed signals. On one hand, it is applying harsh sanctions against Iran, but on the other, it is making it clear that it intends to pull out of the Middle East and not get bogged down in the muck of regional disputes. Washington is pointing an accusing finger at Iran as the party responsible for the attack on the oil tankers and is even threatening to respond if Iran dares to attack American interests. However, the Americans are also expressing a willingness to enter into dialogue with Tehran. Even more importantly, they are not responding to Iranian terrorist attacks in the region.

Other than Israel, none of the countries in the region – particularly the Gulf states – have the ability to confront Iran on their own. So Washington will be forced to deal Iran a severe blow – not only to deter it but to prevent escalation and war. It would be better if that blow came sooner rather than later.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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