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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Iran's main card is one of subversion – but will it play it?

Tehran faces a crucial fork in the road. Reforming the regime would be the wise choice; the other is escalation, writes Raghida Dergham

Iran's leaders will resist reform. EPA / supreme leader office handout
Iran's leaders will resist reform. EPA / supreme leader office handout

The conflicting signals coming from Russia regarding the need for all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria, whether or not this applies to Iran and Hezbollah, hascaused consternation in Iran.

It has added insult to injury with the US withdrawing from the nuclear deal, then announcing through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a new Iran strategy complete with 12 demands.

However, these came without a clear implementation mechanism or a real "diplomatic roadmap to achieve a new security architecture”, to use Mr Pompeo’s terminology.

On the ground, Israel continues to escalate its actions, with renewed strikes on Iranian bases in Syria. The escalation will figure highly in Tehran’s calculations as it considers its response to US threats, while the European official positions and the future of commercial ties with Iran remain unclear.

It is highly likely that Iran’s leaders will decide that their best option is to wager on America’s fickleness, inability to deliver and disloyalty for its friends and allies and try to buy time.

Tehran will likely avoid a direct confrontation with Israel in Syria while consolidating in the Arab countries that are crucial to its regional project, namely Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Iran could leverage its ability to subvert countries in the Gulf like Bahrain. Iran will step up its crackdowns at home to prevent any alleged US-sponsored attempts to topple the regime, although the regime knows that Washington would not dare intervene directly in Iran beyond economic sanctions. Iran will also move to repair relations with the Europeans and strengthen ties with Russia and China to “isolate” the US offensive pursued by Donald Trump. Yet Iran’s success will depend on whether Mr Trump can see through his policies and on whether Israel is fully serious about thwarting Iran’s expansion in Syria at any cost.

Iran’s leaders, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, will strongly resist reforming their regime, as they believe this would spell the end of the model based on exporting the so-called “Islamic revolution” to Iran’s Arab neighbours. But what if Washington proves to be serious about its determination to cripple Iran economically to force reform or face implosion and collapse? What if the Israeli escalation is a strategic decision taken in co-ordination with Washington? What if Moscow is serious about re-drawing its priorities in Syria and has chosen accord with Washington, deciding the time has come to out its alliance with Iran as tactical rather than strategic? Could all this force the Iranian leadership to recalculate and abandon projects for regional expansion?

These are not rhetorical questions and the answers to them will determine the features of the coming phase in the Middle East and the Gulf. The best case scenario would be for the current alignment, especially as it concerns the US and Russia, to lead to a peaceful grand bargain which would see all the players, including regional players such as Iran and Turkey, to back down in Syria – and Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.

However, the dilemma Iran finds itself in is not marginal or fleeting. Iran might not decide to fight a direct war with Israel but it might decide to attack US and even Russian interests in the Arab region if the IRGC concludes that its very survival is at stake. In other words, Iran’s main card is one of subversion but the question is, what would the US response be in case this card is used?

The US has a lot of options, including military ones, such as using the coalition forces in Syria against IRGC and Hezbollah targets. Currently, the Trump administration is pursuing a policy of economic pressure. The calculation is that crippling Iran’s economy and currency would curb its military deployment across the Arab geography.

In other words, the US is also biding its time. Mr Trump does not intend to intervene militarily against Iran in a direct manner and definitely not in the Iranian mainland. But if Iran decided to resort to major sabotage attacks in the Gulf countries, Mr Trump might rethink this posture.

The Trump administration is pressuring European powers to join his efforts to persuade Iran that there is no way to implement its project for regional dominance. The Europeans are resisting but European firms have understood the seriousness of US threats and have started to pressure their governments after Mr Trump made it explicit his sanctions would affect these companies if they continue to do business with Iran.

At the level of relations with Russia, the Trump administration is seeking accords in Syria again, especially with regard to the major problem of Iran’s presence.

On Bashar Al Assad, the previously intractable problem, Washington is no longer in a hurry to get him out of the picture and is willing to let Russia lead. Moscow is currently putting pressure towards constitutional amendments and bringing forward presidential elections while Washington seems to have stopped pushing towards prosecuting Mr Al Assad for war crimes.

Russian experts close to decision-making circles contradict one another regarding Vladimir Putin’s recent remarks vowing all foreign forces would withdraw from Syria. Some say he meant the forces of the US-led coalition present there without permission from the Syrian regime while others say he meant Iran and its allies.

Whether this was a distribution of roles or obfuscation on Mr Putin’s part, the fate of the Iranian project in Syria is now on the table.

Russia is keen on maintaining its ties with the US and Israel and wants to contain Iran’s schemes in Syria.

There’s a fundamental difference between Russia and Iran in Syria: The first wants to preserve the state and the army while Iran wants to export its model based on empowering non-regular forces alongside the army and wants the president to answer to Tehran not Moscow.

Mr Al Assad is not as victorious as some want to suggest. He is not independent from the dictats of Moscow or Tehran and his survival in power depends on the relationship between those two powers.

On the one hand, it is in his interest to side with Iran, the ally who has clung to him personally while Russia has sometimes hinted it was willing to sacrifice him.

However, Iran wants to weaken the main structure of the regime and the regular army and it is now on the verge of crippling economic sanctions while Russia holds the keys to reconstruction in Syria and the preservation of its state.

Russia is also a major power that, unlike Iran, can help guarantee stability and lasting peace.

Iran faces a crucial fork in the road. Reforming the regime would be the wise choice because it would allow the country to repair its economy and focus its energy on its homeland and build a healthy relationship with its people, Arab neighbours and the international community.

The other option would be to choose escalation and suicide.

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