It is not unusual for tensions to be high among the Iranian regime and its generals. Tehran knows that a new difficult chapter was opened the moment Donald Trump announced to the world that his country was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. All that he has dealt since that day has been one painful blow after another against Tehran.
The deal that Iran reached with six world powers in the summer of 2015 was a purely Iranian achievement. Tehran believed that it helped defuse any potential confrontation with the United States and earned it an international badge for good behavior, as well as massive funds. The truth is, what was left out of the deal was much more important than what was included in it. Tehran succeeded in keeping is regional behavior and meddling and its rocket arsenal off the negotiations table. That way, it was able to invest the funds it reaped from the nuclear deal in financing its major regional push.
Iran may have believed that no one would withdraw from the deal because it had become an international agreement. It believed that Trump’s dissatisfaction with the pact and its failure to mention its regional behavior were simply means to exert pressure on it. It would be wrong to believe that one can predict Trump’s decisions. He is a man who very easily takes extraordinary decisions over thorny issues.
The high level of tensions in Tehran could be linked to its realization that the remaining signatories in the 2015 deal cannot make up for the United States’ absence. Iranians have sent several signals in the past few weeks that they do not trust the Europeans’ ability to meet its demands over political guarantees and financial compensations. This was coincided with several open messages from European companies that said if they had to choose between enjoying ties with Iran and ties with the US, they would opt for the latter without hesitation.
Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal was not a whim or a publicity stunt. His administration’s preparations to impose oil sanctions, which will take effect on November 4, indicate that Iran will face a drop in its exports. Its income will also drop at a time when it is burdened by its involvement in military confrontations and commitment to financing allied militias on many fronts.
The most dangerous repercussion of the impending economic difficulties Tehran will face is the possibility that trouble will erupt on the internal Iranian scene itself. Taking into consideration the popular protests that had swept the country in recent months, we realize that any deterioration in living conditions will only fuel the fire of public discontent that demanded that Tehran quit regional wars and turn to its people’s concerns. It is true that Iranian agencies enjoy extraordinary expertise in stifling protests, but it is also true that ongoing disappointment in successive governments may test the regime. The data on unemployment and poverty and the fall of the local currency will definitely eat away at the image of the regime and its governments.
Add to that Europe’s quick condemnation of Tehran’s malign regional behavior despite its commitment to the nuclear deal. Thwarting Iran’s destabilizing regional policy is no less important than thwarting its nuclear ambitions.
Iran has more reason to be concerned. Regional conflicts are not being left in the hands of local forces, but they are now controlled by major world powers. The decisive Russian intervention in Syria appears more significant now than it did in the past. The international community’s acceptance of a Russian Syria is a sign of the rejection of an Iranian Syria. Moscow is overseeing the deployment of Syrian regime forces on the disengagement lines with Israel according to a 1974 agreement. This is a clear message to Iran to steer clear of the area.
Tehran knows full well that the Syrian file was resolved at the American-Russian summit in Helsinki whereby Israel’s security would be preserved, Iran’s meddling would be kept in check and Syrian refugees would be aided.
Compounding Tehran’s headache is the fact that its interference in Yemen may fail and two of the four capitals that it had declared as part of its areas of influence – Baghdad and Beirut – are struggling to form a government despite successful parliamentary elections.
Given the above, tensions are on the rise in Tehran. This was evident in President Hassan Rouhani’s hint that he may block the Hormuz Strait if Iran was barred from exporting its oil. His statements were praised by the supreme leader and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. In a reflection of more of his fears, Rouhani went so far as to threaten Trump, saying: “Don't play with the lion's tail, this would only lead to regret.”
It was interesting that Rouhani resorted to expressions from the Saddam Hussein dictionary when he added: “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”
Difficult months are in store for the Middle East. The tensions are shifting from Syria to Iran. It is clear that Iran will be facing difficult options. It could either take the poison of re-imposed sanctions and await the end of Trump’s term or agree to hold negotiations over its nuclear program and regional role. The supreme leader and Guards are confronted with two difficult choices. Opting for the “mother of all wars” is inadvisable because Saddam’s experience does not encourage taking such a destructive decision.
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