Iran has one major advantage over its Western rivals in the recent tensions with the US and UK. It sees its foreign policy and military strategy as a whole, linked by Tehran to involve both a diplomatic series of escalating threats and a series of military jabs at opponents.
Meanwhile, the UK, one of whose flagged tankers was seized by Iran a week ago, clearly does not want to be involved in military confrontation or even military jabs. Iran’s major advantage is that it tends to understand its opponents better than they understand Iran. There may be one exception though: Israel.
Israel is a key part of the US and UK confrontation with Iran, but it is also one of the more complex players in this confrontation. Iran’s current regime pays constant lip service to confronting Israel, championing the Palestinian cause and arming Hezbollah.
|Iran understands its opponents better than they understand Iran, with one exception: Israel.|
For Iran the confrontation with Israel is part of its regional policy, a way that it can transcend what is usually an Islamic Shi’ite theocratic revolutionary zeal by adopting a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic cause. In this sense its regime only follows in the footsteps of the Arab nationalism championed by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the political Islamic opposition to Israel embodied in groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Once again, Iran here harnesses a diplomatic and military strategy. It builds up groups like Hezbollah militarily while encouraging them to behave like a state within a state. It has done the same in Iraq with its support for Shi’ite militias that are also political groups and have now become official paramilitary groups.
But Iran’s confrontation with Israel is also frustrated by Israel’s actions and warnings to Western and other countries about Iran’s role in the region. For instance, Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon spoke at the world body this week, showing evidence that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sends “dual-use equipment” to Hezbollah while Lebanese civilian authorities remain silent. The IRGC’s Quds Force exploits civilian channels to move the items to Beirut. Beirut has become a Hezbollah port, Danon indicated.
On July 4, British Royal Marines seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 on suspicion of transporting oil to Syria.
All of this is linked to recent tensions between the UK and Iran. Those tensions ostensibly began in early July when British Royal Marines took control of the Grace 1 in Gibraltar. That ship is still being held, and Iran wants it released so it can deliver oil to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. Iran has accused the UK of piracy. In response Iran threatened to seize UK tankers. It was initially frustrated in that attempt by the UK’s HMS Montrose, which escorted one tanker through the Strait of Hormuz. But last Friday it was more successful and took control of the Stena Impero. The UK now wants to de-escalate the situation and negotiate. This is a win for Iran. It shows once again it can do as it pleases in the Persian Gulf.
Iran generally is open about what it intends to do. Before the US warned of Iranian threats in early May, Tehran had already warned that it could threaten shipping via the Strait of Hormuz. Claiming to be responding to US sanctions, Iran then sabotaged four ships in early May and two more on June 13. It also launched drone attacks via allies and proxies in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, targeting an oil facility and areas where US forces are based. Iran was careful not to harm anyone in most of these attacks. But it was clear that it was slowly escalating. Just as with the UK ship, Tehran didn’t keep its policy secret. It said it would do as it wants in the Strait of Hormuz. It warned the UK and it acted.
|The US, UK and Israel do not work in concert in their confrontations with Iran.|
The US, UK and Israel do not work in concert in their confrontations with Iran. It’s a bit like the elephant in the room where everyone confronts a different part of the elephant.
The US uses sanctions and also seeks to frustrate Iranian harassment of its naval assets in the Gulf. For instance, the US claims it used electronic warfare to stop two Iranian drones. Iran says neither drone was harmed. Meanwhile, Iran downed a sophisticated US drone on June 20. The US almost retaliated but chose not to at the last minute. This sent a message to Iran that the threats from Washington might be less than they appear.
Tehran knows that US President Donald Trump doesn’t want another war. But it also doesn’t want to give Trump any excuses to act. An excuse might be if Iran harmed any Americans. So Iran is careful not to harm Americans.
What are the chances that the next stage of escalation with Iran will lead to conflict?
In general, Iran also does not want a widespread conflict. It uses its proxies and allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to confront others, including Israel and the US. But it doesn’t want a real war. Instead, it wants to use pressure points along a 3,000-mile front line, from Beirut to Abha in Saudi Arabia, to pressure the US and Israel, or the UK, in response to Western actions.
An example of how Iran doesn’t want a real conflict can be seen in its responses to alleged and admitted Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Former Israeli chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said Israel carried out “thousands” of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets. What has been the Iranian response? Iran continues to set down roots in Syria and pay lip service to threatening Israel. But so far it hasn’t responded with thousands of attacks.
The absence of strategy by the US, UK, Israel or others in dealing with Iran enables Tehran to largely do what it wants and decide the time and place to pressure its enemies. That means Iran can choose one week to do something in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, or in Syria, and choose to harass shipping the next, or to announce it is leaving more key parts of the 2015 Iran deal. Bit by bit, Iran uses this total strategy to get what it wants.
At the end of the day, Iran may humiliate Western countries by shooting down a drone or seizing a tanker, but what is its end goal? Its economy is still a shambles under US sanctions. But on the ground it has been successful in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
|Tehran’s major hurdle is Israel, whose leaders understand the long-term Iranian threat.|
This is a long-term process of Iranian influence peddling. It hopes to see the Trump administration replaced, and it plays on the idea that most Western powers have short-term memories in dealing with Iran’s actions.
Its major hurdle is still Israel, whose security establishment understands the long-term Iranian threat, and has not forgotten Iran’s past actions.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.