Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

Iran's provocations are intended to deflect attention from internal woes

Tehran is starting to feel the pinch of US sanctions but the US and Europe are divided over a course of action

Protesters burn a US flag during a rally after Friday prayer in Tehran, on Friday, amid escalating tensions between the two countries. AP Photo
Protesters burn a US flag during a rally after Friday prayer in Tehran, on Friday, amid escalating tensions between the two countries. AP Photo

It is no coincidence that, at the very moment the effects of the US sanctions regime against Iran begin to bite, Tehran should find itself accused of stoking fresh tensions with the West.

That is certainly how the Trump administration seems to be interpreting the recent series of disturbing incidents that have taken place in the Gulf region this week, with Iran being blamed for the recent attacks on four oil tankers operating in the region, as well as a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline.

Iran, for its part, has denied any involvement in these acts of sabotage, claiming that it is the victim of an American plot to provoke a military confrontation with Tehran.

But the US and its allies have good reason to be sceptical of Iran’s protestations of innocence, particularly as the regime's leaders have a long history of seeking to provoke a confrontation with the outside world as a means of distracting attention away from their domestic woes.

And, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani admitted this week, the regime is now facing the most challenging circumstances at home that it has experienced at any point since the long-running war with Iraq between 1980-88.

Iran’s dire economic situation is certainly at odds with Mr Rouhani’s initial insistence that the country would not be unduly affected by the re-imposition of American sanctions last year.

On the contrary, the reality has been very different, as recent indicators regarding Iran’s economic wellbeing graphically illustrate.

To date, the national currency has lost 60 per cent of its value in the past year, inflation is up by nearly 40 per cent and oil exports reduced to their lowest level in nearly a decade.

This calamitous plunge in Iran’s fortunes has led Mr Rouhani to concede that, for all his bravado last year, the impact the sanctions are having has created even worse conditions for Iran than those during the country’s long-running war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988.

Moreover, most Iranians believe the country’s predicament will get even worse as the impact is felt from the Trump administration’s decision earlier this month to end the waivers it allowed to certain countries, such as China, India and Turkey, to continue buying oil from Iran until alternative arrangements could be made. Washington is now determined to prevent the key pillars of the Iranian economy – its oil, banking and financial sectors – from doing any business with the outside world.

Iran has a long history of seeking to provoke a confrontation with the outside world to distract attention away from domestic woes

As Mr Rouhani explained to a group of political supporters in Tehran earlier this week, this means the Iranian economy is facing challenges even greater than those it endured during the Iran-Iraq war.

“During the war, we did not have a problem with our banks, oil sales or imports and exports,” he said. Iran, he said, now faced pressures that were “unprecedented in the history of our Islamic revolution”.

Mr Rouhani was less forthcoming about how the regime intended to respond to these new challenges. But to judge by the recent dramatic escalation of tensions in the region, the regime has reverted to the familiar tactic of trying to provoke hostilities with the western alliance and its regional rivals as a blatant ploy to distract attention away from its internal problems.

That is certainly the view in Washington where, irrespective of whether Iran was responsible for committing acts of sabotage against the oil tankers and the Saudi pipeline drone strike, senior members of the Trump administration are insistent that Iran is planning to carry out attacks against the US and its allies in the region. This has prompted the Pentagon to dispatch an aircraft carrier battle group and a fleet of B-52 bombers to the region to bolster its defences.

The current military escalation certainly bears an uncanny resemblance to the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war when US and other allied warships were deployed to the Gulf to prevent Iran from disrupting vital trade routes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Yet, as Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, has warned, it is vital that the outside world does not overreact to claims Tehran is indulging in acts of deliberate provocation.

Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Dr Gargash said the priority must be the preservation of peace and stability. "This has been a turbulent week even by the standards of the region,” he said. "In these times we need to emphasise caution and good judgment, but it is a very brittle situation.”

Dr Gargash’s comments appear to reflect the reservations of many in Europe who, rather than lending their full support to the Trump administration’s bellicose stance towards Iran, have expressed doubts about the American approach.

The divisions between the European and American positions surfaced during a briefing earlier this week by major general Chris Ghika, Britain’s top commander in the US-led mission against ISIS. He appeared to contradict Washington’s earlier assessment that Iran posed a threat to American interests in the region, commenting that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.

The general’s statement prompted a rare public rebuke from the Pentagon, which said his comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from the US and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces”.

Tensions also exist between Europe and America over their approach to the nuclear deal, with the Europeans determined to maintain trade ties with Iran, irrespective of American opposition.

This is good news for Iran, as it suggests that, unlike the last time tensions in the Gulf reached this level, the Americans will be acting without the endorsement of their European allies.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: May 16, 2019 05:27 PM

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