The age-old confrontation between the United States and Iran of the Ayatollahs does not seem to subside. Despite four decades since “revolutionary” students, disciples of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, had taken 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, from 4 November 1979 till 20 January 1981, the two countries have been locked in a confrontation that neither one of them is willing or capable of overcoming.
Last Wednesday, 8 January, Iranian ballistic missiles were fired against two American military facilities in Iraq, in swift retaliation for the targeted killing of the commander of the Quds Force, the military arm of Iran in its regional overreach, General Qassem Suleimani, by an American drone, 2 January. The retaliation was tailormade not to cross the red line of American soldiers killed, so as not to give the US administration a pretext to launch devastating attacks against Iranian military installations — for example, its ballistic missiles bases or its oil infrastructures. The measured Iranian retaliation was meant to send a message home that Iran has the political will, and the military capacities as well, to hit the United States. The second message was meant to bolster the morale of the pro-Iranian Arab militias throughout the Levant and the Gulf, including the Houthis of Yemen.
The third message was destined to the allies and partners of the United States in the region; namely, that Iran, if need be, would not hesitate to target them in any open military confrontation with the United States.
The fear in the wake of the Iranian attacks was how the United States would respond.
A few hours after the missile attacks on Ain Al-Assad Air Base in Baghdad and a military facility in Irbil, Kurdistan, US President Donald Trump gave an address from the White House saying that Iran is “standing down” from a military point of view, and that as long as he is the US president, Iran would never acquire a nuclear weapon. He described the late Iranian general, Suleimani, as a “ruthless terrorist”, all the while assuring the Americans and the world that he is ready to “embrace peace”. He called on NATO to become more involved in the Middle East. In a phone call with the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, the two agreed that the alliance could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism.
Before the remarks of Mr Trump, the Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif, tweeted that by hitting the two American bases, Iran “took calculated and proportionate measures in self-defence, and Iran does not seek escalation or war”. A well-measured retaliation on the part of Tehran that is not meant to ignite the powder keg that the Middle East has become in the last few years.
However, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said 8 January that the ultimate goal of his country is to “expel” the United States from the Middle East.
The Iranians are aware that Trump wants to withdraw American forces in the region, and that he has no interest, whatsoever, to get embroiled in a new Middle Eastern war, especially when he is seeking re-election to a second term this year. This gives them room to harass the American military in the Middle East and the Gulf through their proxy militias. On the other hand, they would exert maximum pressures of their own against the presence of American forces in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution after the killing of Suleimani to “expel” American forces from Iraq. In fact, the Iraqi prime minister, in his caretaker capacity, officially called on the US administration to hold talks with the Iraqi government so as to carry out a safe and orderly withdrawal of American troops presently deployed in Iraq.
The United States replied diplomatically and turned down his request. According to unconfirmed press reports 12 January, the US State Department warned that the United States could shut down Iraq’s access to its accounts deposited at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. If true, this warning would put Iraqi politicians in a very delicate situation, politically and economically. After Trump took office, his primary concern in keeping American forces in Iraq has been twofold: to fight the Islamic State organisation and make sure it won’t regroup; and to keep Iran in check in Iraq while keeping an eye on its “malign activities”, be it in Syria or in the Gulf.
For the time being, the Middle East has been spared a regionwide war, but the deep causes of a future military conflagration have not disappeared.
The US administration is tightening the noose around the Iranian economy in the context of its “maximum pressure” strategy after its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna in July 2015.
Last Friday, 10 January, President Trump signed an executive order that provides the US administration with new punitive tools. The US Treasury Department can blacklist any individual or entity that works in the Iranian construction, manufacturing, textiles and mining sectors, or any outside entity or persons dealing with them. The US president believes that this new executive order “will have a major impact on the Iranian economy, authorising powerful secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions”. The endgame, from the American perspective, is to push the Iranians to renegotiate a new agreement, not only concerning their nuclear programmes but also their ballistic missiles arsenal, and what the United States, under the current administration, calls the “malign activities” of Iran in the Middle East.
Will Iran agree to enter into negotiations with the United States while the latter is applying a strategy of economic strangulation of the Iranian economy? It is doubtful.
For the time being, and till the swearing-in of the new American president a year from now, the confrontation between the United States and Iran will remain contained as the destabilising developments of the last 12 days have proven.
This situation of no war and no peace is an opportunity for the Arab allies and partners of the United States to reconsider their present regional strategies and alliances so, come next year, they would be ready to deal with any eventuality.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly