Iran's War Imperative

Consider the changing landscape on Iran’s streets: In late 2019, a series of protests against the Iranian government’s mismanagement of the economy threatened to spark off yet another revolution. Now, in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, tens of thousands marched again in Tehran – but this time to protest against the United States.

That unification of purpose forms a significant backdrop to the ongoing crisis. In recent days, fiery rhetoric, both on and off social media, has raised the spectre of war. In a series of stinging remarks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for “revenge”, prompting a counter-tirade from US President Donald Trump, who said that America had identified “52 Iranian sites” for attack. This week, Iran fired missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting US troops.

Nobody knows if all this means that a war is imminent or inevitable; yet, for Iran, there are unique incentives – both domestic and foreign – for further provocation and retaliation against the US, even to the extent of luring Washington into another costly and unwinnable war in the Middle East.

If the mood on the street so far is anything go by, the ongoing faceoff with the US could well prove to be a welcome distraction for the Iranian regime.

When Iranians took to the streets in mid-November last year, their demands were primarily economic in nature: relief from rising fuel prices, greater access to opportunities, relief from corruption, and so on. But that later escalated: As the Iranian government struck back, killing over 200 civilians in a matter of days, some protesters started demanding an overthrow of the Islamic Republic and of the Ayatollah himself.

Soleimani’s assassination and the prospect of hostilities with the US now present a common external enemy and rallying point for the Iranian government and the people – one that will be immensely useful in appealing to moderates and hardliners across the country, to distract away from the larger public fury on issues of governance.

The foreign policy incentives are even more compelling for Iran. Ever since President Trump withdrew unilaterally from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, the US has found itself increasingly isolated in its quest against Iran. Traditional American allies, including all of Europe, strongly criticised Trump’s withdrawal. Australia and Japan – two of Washington’s staunchest allies – both spoke out in favour of the deal. In the event of a full-blown war with Iran, those countries will only further alienate themselves from the US.

But even amongst those who supported Trump’s withdrawal – namely, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia – the appetite for a war with Iran is limited, and support for an American campaign will be lukewarm. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been spending millions of dollars on a series of campaigns to woo foreign investors, businessmen and tourists. It is also trying to remake its image on the world stage; this year’s G20 summit – the annual gathering of the world’s 20 leading economies – is due to be held in Riyadh.

The Saudi government might wholeheartedly support America’s campaigns against Shia militias in the region, but it is unlikely to join a military coalition against Iran. The costs of chaos are far too high. Last September, Iran’s militias launched an unprecedented missile strike on strategic Saudi oil facilities – wiping out as much as half of Saudi Arabia’s oil supply. In response, Riyadh was conspicuously restrained, even beginning backchannel talks with Iran to de-escalate the situation.

For Tehran, on the other hand, chaos and war will not just weaken alliances among its rivals in the region – Saudi Arabia and the US – but will also sabotage Riyadh’s efforts to pull ahead in the struggle for influence in the Middle East.

If a war is likely to test America’s alliances, it may just strengthen Iran’s own – particularly with Russia. In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been all too willing to use Moscow’s military might in the Middle East to wrest away influence in the region from the US, particularly in support of its own allies.

That is the lesson from Syria and it will likely replay itself in Iran – another Russian ally –encouraged and bolstered by Moscow’s significant successes in repelling threats to the Syrian government. In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Russia released among the more aggressive statements condemning the strike. Its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the strike “illegal” while a foreign ministry spokeswoman excoriated American efforts towards “changing the balance of power in the region.”

None of this is to say that Iran and Russia will wage war against the US, or that violence is inevitable. As Michael Eisenstadt of The Washington Institute pointed out in June last year, Iran has been deterred in the past from escalating conflicts for fear of a violent backlash from Washington. In Moscow, US sanctions have had a biting effect on the economy and on the business interests of those close to the Kremlin.

Yet, there are significant incentives – ranging from domestic dissent to geopolitical opportunities – that would tempt Tehran to poke, prod and provoke America in retaliation for the strike on Soleimani. Earlier this week, after Trump’s ostensibly conciliatory speech, Iran warned of “harsher revenge soon.”

On its part, America would do well to recognise the perils of waging a costly war alone against a far more coherent and motivated opposing coalition. For close to half a century, the Middle East is where American power and influence have come to suffer more than in any other region of the world. That is something that allies and rivals on both sides of the conflict are conscious of.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald