The demonstrations in Iran over the last few days have not only been in protest at the regime’s cover-up of the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran earlier this year, but also out of anger against the dire situation the country is getting into while its leadership promotes its “resistance” call and threats against America.
According to the little information coming out of Iran, a growing number of Iranians, especially among the youth, are fed up with the decades of suffering under international sanctions and isolation from the world. Some analysts say that the regime’s illusions of power and so-called “defiance” have been exposed as illusory by events since US drones killed Al-Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on 3 January in Iraq.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the IRGC rockets hitting the Ukrainian airliner in a “mistake” that cost the lives of the almost 180 passengers on board after it took off from Tehran International Airport in Iran. This was an event that for many simply showed the incompetence of the militia hailed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as an elite force deserving of a budget of billions and more than that allocated to the national army.
Anger has been building up in Iran since the regime’s threats of “revenge” for the killing of Suleimani turned into missile attacks that damaged Iraqi military bases with no loss of life among the US forces stationed in them. There is a feeling among the protesters in Iran that the regime’s defiance of the US is hollow and might lead the country into the abyss.
Since the US assassination of Suleimani and others near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, the Iranian leadership and IRGC generals have issued strong statements about a retaliatory response with the ultimate goal of “driving American forces out of the Middle East.” But the missile attacks on the Ain Al-Assad base in the Iraqi Anbar Province and another base near Irbil in the north of Iraq on 8 January did not inflict the promised pain on the American military.
Some analysts in the region attribute this to Iranian pragmatism, since Tehran knows the limits of its power compared to that of the US and does not want to suffer the consequences of a counterattack if it harms American troops in the region. However, the US media also quoted a senior American military official dismissing the idea that Iran had intentionally avoided killing American troops by aiming for uninhabited parts of the bases.
What is known for a fact is that Iran told the Iraqi authorities of them a few hours before the attacks and that this message was probably passed to the Americans so they could take precautions. However, one Dubai-based Saudi analyst ruled out the notion that the Iranian leadership had meant to pass the message on to the Americans as a sort of “contained proportionate” response that would be tolerated by the US.
Instead, he argued that Iranian over-confidence had led to a lack of planning and an overblown trust in the country’s military capabilities. He said that some of the 16 missiles fired had missed their targets by considerable distances.
Rumours have circulated that the missiles did not carry lethal warheads either, as the Iranians announce when they test new weapons, but these rumours have mainly aimed to support the argument that there had been some covert Iranian-American agreement on a “benign” military response.
There are considerations that refute such implicit coordination. On the day preceding the missile attacks, an Iranian journalist posted on his Twitter page a video filmed in the country’s Ahwaz Province showing IRGC convoys transferring missiles and missile launchers to the Iranian-Iraqi border. During the day, accounts close to the IRGC on social media repeatedly posted a publicity video of a missile launching with the message that “revenge is imminent.”
This video did not require sophisticated systems to detect, as it was in the public domain. Yet, the US media reported after the missile attacks that communications between Iranian military leaders had been intercepted, giving an early warning that missile attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting American troops were in the making.
American military satellites monitored the movements of the missile launchers, and even conveyed their location to intelligence centres in Washington. The Americans also have concrete evidence that Tehran is preventing its proxy militias in the region from attacking American interests.
“We’re receiving some encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages to those very same militias not to move against American targets or civilians,” US Vice-President Mike Pence said during an interview with the US channel CBS News on the evening of 8 January.
American analysts say that the assessment of CIA Director Gina Haspel has been proven right. She is thought to have advised US President Donald Trump days before Suleimani’s killing that the threat the Iranian military leader presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed.
Whether the Iranian response was meant to be “proportionate” in order to contain American wrath, or whether it represents the maximum of Iran’s military capability, regional powers are now in a wait and see situation. Trump has said he is still open to negotiations on a new deal with Iran, though he also announced a new batch of sanctions just after the missile attacks.
Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are raising the stakes in their support of the demonstrations in Iran, hoping that internal pressure along with external pressure through sanctions will bring the Iranian leadership to the negotiating table.
Trump has tweeted that “Iran has never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.”
This has been the position of the Arab Gulf countries all along, and they hope that Tehran will now come to its senses. One Gulf source said he expected the exposure of Iran’s military failures might lead to negotiations. He drew an analogy with the decision by Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1988 accepted a UN resolution ending eight years of war with Iraq.
People still remember Khomeini’s rhetorical description of the decision to give up, when he said that “taking this decision was more deadly than taking poison. I submitted myself to God’s will and drank this drink for his satisfaction.”
The current situation might not be very different.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Iran’s exaggerated defiance