Tensions between Iran and the United States are again on the rise on the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Just three-and-a-half years ago, jubilant Iranians filled the streets of Tehran to celebrate the signing of the nuclear deal with the West in the hope that this would lead to a normalisation of Iran’s relations with the US.
However, not only did relations not normalise, but today there is the highest level of tension between the two countries since the hostage crisis in 1979 when American diplomats were held hostage by revolutionaries in Tehran for 444 days.
US President Donald Trump has presented Iran with an ultimatum: meet me face to face, or I will do everything in my power to force a change in your behaviour.
Since the ayatollahs in Tehran have rejected any meeting with Trump, the latter is now ratcheting up the pressure on the regime.
Trump ordered the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal last May and the reinstatement of sanctions, and he has given the green light to Israel to attack the Iranian Al-Quds Force militia in Syria.
The sanctions are hurting millions of Iranians who do not support the regime but cannot demonstrate against it owing to the harsh repression that awaits anyone signalling their hostility to the regime.
While they already have many matters of concern to deal with regarding their neighbours and their own people, the ayatollahs have now heard of the US-sponsored international conference to be held in Poland that will concentrate on Iranian affairs.
Caught between their own angry and frustrated people and the United States, which is building an international coalition against the regime, the Islamic Republic has now adopted a new policy to confront such threats.
It has been spreading rumours that it may want to withdraw from the nuclear deal, using these as a tool to raise fears among EU member states that have delayed establishing a separate banking network with Tehran and have indicated a willingness to stand firm against Trump’s sanctions.
Beginning with a threat to restart enriching uranium and continuing with plans to launch satellites despite Western opposition and direct threats made by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander to Israel who said “you should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles fall on your head,” Iran has adopted various strategies to confront the US.
However, while Iran has shown a willingness to play many cards, it is difficult to say whether any of them will turn out to be the ace than can win the game.
Disappointed by the EU and under internal and external pressure, the Islamic Republic sees that time is against it given the planned Peace and Security Conference to be held in Warsaw that will put Western policy towards Iran centre-stage.
The regime is disturbed at the prospect of further sanctions and the formation of an international coalition to address Iran’s regional behaviour and the global threat of supporting militias and financing terrorism.
The EU has already expressed its concern at Iran’s long-range missile tests and the plots uncovered in the Netherlands and Denmark to target the Iranian opposition that are linked to Tehran.
With plans afoot to re-impose sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards Corps and part of the intelligence apparatus, Iran may soon face the same level of tension with the EU that it experienced in the first decade of the revolution.
Former US president Barack Obama formed an international coalition to put pressure on Tehran, this pushing the ayatollahs to accept negotiations and to dismantle a large portion of their nuclear programme.
It may be that Trump has been inspired by Obama to follow this policy, this time with the aim of finishing what Obama did not have the time to finish and curbing Iran’s missile programme and regional interference.
Trump has the same goal of trying to convince the international community of the danger of Iran even without the nuclear programme due to its regional ambitions and the support it gives to regional Shia militias.
This will be a hard task for Trump and an uneasy subject for the ayatollahs in Tehran. But whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: 2019 will be a very difficult year for ordinary Iranians who like 40 years ago will experience major privations at home.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A difficult year for Iran