The debate on Iran has reached a crossroads, with evermore voices joining Europe’s position in arguing that the US “maximum pressure” policy towards Tehran is failing. Advocates of this position point to the surge in Iranian-sponsored attacks since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal as evidence of policy failure. In recent weeks, even hawks in Washington appear to be losing faith in President Trump’s policy, not least following the restrained and calculated US response to the Iranian regime’s strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, which caused the biggest disruption to oil supplies in history.
But what many commentators and policymakers have misunderstood is that Iran’s recent regional escalation is not simply reactive, rather it is part of a calculated strategy. Crucially, it is also one borne out of strategic weakness, not strength.
Iran’s strategy is based around three core components. First, by escalating attacks in the region via the IRGC – recently designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington – and its proxies, Iran’s leaders hope to pressure Europe into granting it greater economic concessions. The Iranian economy was already spiralling downwards during the protests of winter 2017-18 – crucially 11 months before the re-imposition of US sanctions.
The Trump strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran, in particular its sanctions on the oil sector – the main source of revenue for the regime – has escalated the situation further. The US policy of aiming to bring Iranian oil exports to zero has strained Iranian crude production to 2.23 million barrels per day in September – Tehran’s lowest output since August 1988. The impact this is having is underscored by the latest International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) calculations on the Iranian economy, which is expected to contract further by 9.5% in 2019/20.
Seeking to take advantage of the chasm in US-Europe relations over Iran, the Islamic Republic believes that by raising the temperature in the region, either directly via attacks on commercial ships in the Straits of Hormuz, or indirectly via its proxies in the wider Middle East, Europe will be intimidated into granting the Islamic Republic greater economic concessions as a way to placate the regime and moderating its behaviour. While this calculation is certainly risky, it is being driven by a sinister realpolitik, employing belligerence as a mechanism to force concession.
Ideology, however, is the fuel that drives Iran’s second objective: seeking regime change in Washington. Since the crushing of the “Green uprising” in 2009, Iran’s regime has become increasingly ideological. This can be seen in the strengthening of the supreme leader’s authority. Ten years after 2009, Khamenei and regime loyalists have made it clear that disobedience to his leadership is akin to disobedience to God – and punishable by death. For the 80-year-old supreme leader, whose face is virtually inescapable in every corner of Iran and whose aim is to preserve his regime’s Shia Islamism, anti-American ideology is central to his legacy.
To achieve this, Khamenei wants Trump gone. Just as Khomeini ended up in the Iranian history books as the man who unseated the then President Jimmy Carter through the US hostage crisis in 1979, for Khamenei, the ultimate victory against the “Great Satan” would be toppling Trump.
Tehran has calculated that the best way to get rid of Trump is to further escalate its disruptive behaviour in the region in order to provoke a targeted American response, which, it hopes, would lead to a small, manageable conflict with the US. This hunger for conflict can be seen in Tehran’s recent actions. Since May, Iran and its proxies have attacked six oil tankers, hijacked three commercial vessels – including a British-flagged ship – conducted rocket attacks on Western interests in the Middle East, and downed a US drone. While this strategy is highly risky, it could potentially create a win-win situation for Iran’s leaders.
On one hand, if the US retaliates to Iran’s provocations, however small and targeted the US response, Iran’s leaders have calculated that it would lead to Trump losing the 2020 election as they believe a new Middle East war would be deeply unpopular with the US population right now. If such a scenario cost Trump re-election, not only would the Ayatollah have achieved regime change in Washington, but it is possible any incoming Democratic president would return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Given that Iran’s precondition for any talks with the White House is the US returning to the nuclear deal, this scenario would give Tehran a double victory. The recent exposure of Iranian attempts to hack the Trump 2020 campaign underscores Tehran’s intent in this regard.
However, if Trump does not respond to Iran’s escalation and rather opts to abandon – or weaken – the strategy of “maximum pressure” as a means to moderate Iranian behaviour, this would also be seen as a victory in Tehran. The abandonment of the US’s hard-line posture, which many observers thought might follow the ousting of the hawkish John Bolton as National Security Advisor, would make it clear to Iran’s leaders that flexing their muscles gets results.
It would be a profound mistake, however, to see Iran’s recent escalation as an act of strength. The Iranian high-risk strategy is a sign of a regime under incredible pressure at home, facing the interconnected challenges of a deteriorating economy, widespread protests and an ageing Supreme Leader, running out of ideas and time.
In fact, the Iranian regime’s show of strength is merely a diversion from the thing Tehran fears most: a sustained, organised and systematic domestic uprising.
Over the past year, dissent in Iran has reached fever pitch, with levels not seen since the build-up to the 1979 revolution. Unlike before, public anger encompasses both economic and social concerns – a toxic mix for the regime. Ten years on from the defeat of the pro-democracy Green Revolution, the thirst for change in Iran has grown from a concern predominantly of liberal-minded Iranians to large swathes of the population. Despite seven years under a so-called “reformist” leader, the Iranian population – in particular young people – are frustrated at the lack of progress on reform, particularly in terms of liberalisation of the country.
On the economic front, discontent encompasses a much broader group, including traditional supporters of the regime who are unhappy with the economy and have seen a significant drop in their living standards. Domestic suffering has not, however, deterred Iran from spending billions abroad to support its Islamist proxies and the Assad regime. And this is adding fuel to the burning fire of Iranian grievance. In the past year, this status quo of dissent has seen women risking their lives bravely challenging the repressive laws on the compulsory hijab. Teachers and workers striking to protest against months of unpaid wages. As well as human rights lawyers and activists, environmentalists and students being detained en masse. The 7000 peaceful protestors detained by the Iranian authorities in 2018 paints the picture of a regime at odds with its people. The fact that the clerical establishment has threatened to deploy the Shia militias it supports in the region to quash any future uprising underscores the fragility of the system internally.
Many Iranians now claim the regime is on the verge of collapse. Knowing this, Iran’s leaders hope to create a timely external crisis to divert people’s attention from homegrown problems – and that’s where a manageable conflict with the US again fits in. Furthermore, the securitisation of Iran’s external situation enables the clerical establishment in Iran to push for securitisation at home, which means the regime will be able to arrest more people at home under the premise of “national security”. The recent detainment of “US and British spies” in Iran is testament to this strategy.
Moving forward, the US must be careful not to fall into the Iranian conflict trap. Trump should stick to his policy of “maximum pressure”, but this must be accompanied by a comprehensive strategy that deals with Iran’s malign behaviour in the region by working with US allies and partners in the Middle East. That Iran’s leaders welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from Northern Syria speaks volumes. Vacuums do not exist in the Middle East: abandoning our allies will only empower our adversaries.
But beyond this, the US should focus efforts on building an international coalition against the regime in Iran – and crucially this coalition needs Europe’s support because it is the key piece of the puzzle. Until the Iranian strike on the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Tehran had been able to capitalise on Europe’s disdain for the US President. But now there looks to be an opportunity, with all E3 leaders blaming Iran for the attack and stating the need for a new all-encompassing agreement. The US must tap into this opportunity and join forces with the Europeans. The only solution to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East and push back against the Ayatollah’s thirst for conflict is a united US and Europe.