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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

The Iranian regime is motivated by regional domination and its visceral anti-Americanism

Billions of dollars have been spent on deepening Iran’s involvement in countries like Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, writes Con Coughlin

Iranian protesters burn flags outside the former US embassy headquarters in Tehran. Atta Kenare / AFP 
Iranian protesters burn flags outside the former US embassy headquarters in Tehran. Atta Kenare / AFP 

Nothing better illustrates Iran’s latent hostility towards the West than the way the regime has responded to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal this week.

From the earliest days of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the ayatollahs have delighted in baiting America – the country they like to refer to as “the Great Satan” – at each and every opportunity.

The storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shortly after the revolution’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had seized power and subsequently holding hostage 52 American diplomats and citizens for 444 days, has been the most graphic manifestation of Tehran’s visceral anti-Americanism.

But after former US president Barack Obama invested so much personal political capital in trying to secure the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, there were genuine hopes in the US and Europe that this might signal a change of attitude in Tehran.

The reality, of course, is that there was never any real change in the regime’s deep-rooted antipathy towards the West and its allies, an attitude that surfaced within hours of Mr Trump announcing his decision to end Washington’s involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to give the accord its proper title.

For no sooner had Mr Trump announced his decision than a group of Iranian MPs were photographed burning the US flag in front of the speaker’s chair at the Majlis, the Iranian parliament.

Shortly thereafter Tehran signalled its intention to maintain its aggressive posture towards the rest of the region by reportedly firing an estimated 20 rockets from positions held by the IRGC at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Given the hawkish mood towards Iran that now prevails in Washington, the ayatollahs know better than to provoke a direct military confrontation with the US by, for example, harassing Gulf-based American naval vessels attached to the 5th Fleet.

Attacking the Israelis, therefore, who are one of the Trump administration’s closest allies in the region, was seen as a preferable alternative – the missile strikes presented a useful means of asserting Iran’s growing military strength in the region without running the risk of a direct engagement with the US.

It is a strategy that it is not without risk, especially as the Israelis have made no secret of their desire to destroy the network of military installations that Iran has recently constructed in Syria. Israel responded to the missile strikes on the occupied Golan Heights by launching its heaviest air strikes in years, with the threat of more to come if Iran continues to maintain its aggressive posture on Israel’s doorstep.

What is clear from Iran’s response so far to Mr Trump's decision is that it remains an implacable foe of the West. It is an outlook that has not changed one jot, despite all the benefits the regime received as a result of the nuclear deal.

In truth, Iran’s primary motivation in agreeing to the deal in the first place was not to defuse regional tensions. It was simply to lift the punitive economic sanctions that had been imposed in response to Tehran’s continued failure to co-operate fully with the UN-sponsored International Atomic Energy Agency – the body charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, which the Iranians have always claimed were for peaceful purposes.

It should not be forgotten that the main reason Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s seventh president back in 2013 is that he campaigned on a promise to improve relations with the West and get the sanctions lifted, thereby reviving the country’s economic fortunes.

After initial misgivings, even the hardliners around the Iran’s all-powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ended up backing Mr Rouhani’s initiative.

This was because custodians of the Islamic revolution, such as the IRGC, who control an estimated 60 per cent of the Iranian economy, realised that their economic prospects would be better served by having the sanctions lifted than maintaining their confrontational posture towards the West.

Indeed, it is estimated that the regime has received an estimated $150 billion as a result of assets being released once the deal was signed.

For ordinary Iranians, though, the tragedy of the past three years is that, rather than spending this largesse on rebuilding Iran’s economy, much of this money has instead been used by the IRGC to fund its expansionist agenda throughout the rest of the Middle East.

Billions of dollars have been spent on deepening Iran’s involvement in countries like Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

One of the main complaints articulated by the anti-government protesters who took to the streets in several Iranian cities earlier this year was that the regime was spending too much money on financing its overseas military adventures, and not enough on the well-being of its own people.

Thanks to the repressive measures the regime adopts whenever opposition emerges to its policies, the voices of the protesters are no longer heard. But that does not mean they will not return if, as seems likely, the regime continues to spend billions of dollars in pursuit of its sinister agenda of achieving regional domination.

Con Coughlin is The Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor and author of “Khomeini’s Ghost”