The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran came the closest to a full-blown military confrontation in early January. The United States assassinated Iran’s most powerful and influential general, Qassem Soleimani, and Tehran responded by targeting two US military bases with ballistic missiles in Iraq. However, as Tehran’s actions caused infrastructural damage but no American fatalities, President Donald Trump was initially able to claim that there was no need for US retaliation. The Pentagon only subsequently revealed that more than 100 US soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries. As such, both sides claimed a kind of victory and refrained from further escalation. Yet the very factors that have underpinned the long-running US–Iranian hostility since the Iranian revolution of 1978–79—which transformed the oil-rich Iran from a pro-Western monarchy into a predominantly Shia Islamic republic—remain unresolved. Thus, the risk of further flare-ups and a major confrontation remains in place.
President Trump has vowed to contain Iran, referring to the country as a major threat to regional and global security. He has cancelled the landmark July 2015 nuclear agreement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—JCPOA) between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and imposed severe sanctions on the country. The president wants Tehran to renegotiate the JCPOA with the view that Iran should never have the capability to be a nuclear military power, or an assertive actor in the region. He also wants Tehran to curtail its missile industry, which has become a very potent part of Iran’s defensive arsenal, and to retrench its regional influence. His ultimate aim is to force regime change or a change in regime behaviour in Iran through a policy of ‘maximum pressure’.
Trump is wary of the Islamic republic for several reasons. He believes, as do many US and Israeli conservative forces, that the nuclear agreement—a signature achievement of his Democrat predecessor, Barack Obama—and the resultant lifting of the sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran downgrading its nuclear ambitions have benefitted the Iranian regime more than the United States and its allies. In his view, the JCPOA has enabled the regime to gain increased revenue to preserve its repressive rule at home and expand its influence in the region. He is particularly concerned about Iran’s military involvement directly or through proxy forces in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention Yemen. As an extreme supporter of Israel, Trump has shared the Jewish state’s anxiety about the Iranian military presence in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Trump is also stung by Tehran’s increasingly close relations with Beijing and Moscow, in an anti-US posture.
Despite lacking a coherent Middle East policy and acting often impulsively and contradictorily, Trump has engaged in a vigorous effort to build a regional counter to Iran, in four main ways.
First, he has backed to the hilt his favourite anti-Iranian state in the region, Israel, to alleviate the Jewish state’s concerns about Iranian military presence in support of the Assad regime in Syria, and he has supported Israel’s stepped-up operations against Iranian targets in that country. In the process, he has also sought to boost the position of his close friend, right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been officially indicted for charges of corruption and bribery and is in need of an electoral victory to avoid imprisonment.
Second, Trump has given extensive support to another regional rival of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as some of its Arab allies in the region. He has strongly encouraged close cooperation between these states and Israel in a common anti-Iranian cause.
Third, the Trump administration has augmented US-force deployment in the Persian Gulf, recently sending 15,000 troops to Saudi Arabia and 5000 to Kuwait. Meanwhile, despite Trump’s earlier assertions that he does not want war with Iran and that he wants to bring American troops home, including those posted in Afghanistan, he has insisted on the continued presence of 5200 American troops in Iraq. In response to the Iraqi parliament’s resolution that American forces be withdrawn in reaction to the killing of General Soleimani, Trump has said that in the event of any unilateral action by the Iraqi government in this respect, he would impose such sanctions as to destroy the Iraqi economy.
Fourth, he has imposed an unprecedented regime of sanctions against Iran. The sanctions have targeted all sectors of Iran’s fragile economy, important individuals, groups and organisations. They have crippled the export of Iranian oil (the country’s main source of income), as well as financial institutions and transactions, industrial output, and trade and economic dealings with the outside world. He has also designated Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation. This is the first time that the United States has targeted a country’s national defence organisation in such a way. All these measures are designed to cause popular uprisings against the Islamic regime, freeze Tehran’s military capability and curtail its regional leverage. Iraq is the country with which the United States has sought to have an alliance, at the cost of a massive investment in blood and money since its 2003 invasion of the country.
Tehran has condemned Trump’s actions and those of the United States’ regional allies, and it has vowed to resist and circumvent them by whatever means necessary. It regards Iran’s hard and soft power build-up, and its close sectarian and strategic links with the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as a number of subnational groups—for example, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, receptive minority Shia groups in Afghanistan, and the Houthis in Yemen—as essential to its regional security.
This is not the first time that the Islamic republic has been subjected to a very aggressive regime of sanctions. It has laboured under a variety of US-driven sanctions since its foundation, and it has developed the necessary resilience and methods—including accessing foreign currency through Iraq and Afghanistan, which are awash with US dollars—to get around the sanctions. Yet the same cannot be said about the Iranian populace, where Trump’s sanctions have bitten deeper than any previous ones. They have caused extreme hardship for ordinary Iranians, who have had to cope with hyperinflation, high unemployment, a free-falling currency, shortages of many commodities and rising costs of living. Under Trump’s threat of secondary sanctions against governments and organisations that violate the sanctions, foreign investment has largely dried up and many governments have limited their economic and trade dealings with Iran. A number of Western companies that started business activities in Iran after the signing of the JCPOA have since pulled out of the country.
However, if Trump thinks that he has cornered the Islamic regime, he is mistaken. The regime has certainly lost much of its initial gloss with the post-revolution younger generation, who form the bulk of Iran’s 83-million-strong population, and many older urban dwellers. As the economic situation has deteriorated, and corruption and maladministration have remained pervasive, there has been growing public unrest. But the regime has been able to contain this unrest and conveniently blames foreign enemies—the United States and Israel in particular—for Iran’s economic woes. In addition to its possession of the state’s formidable coercive forces, the regime still commands a considerable amount of support among the largely traditionalist rural population and the upper strata of society. It has successfully blended the forces of Shi’ism with the Iranians’ sense of fierce nationalism to evoke, whenever required, the necessary support to unite the public behind it, especially when Iran is faced with a foreign threat or aggression, as has historically been the case.
It is important to remember that the regime is still run by the very clerical stratum—and its supporters—that created it. These forces, which have shown a remarkable degree of pragmatism vis-à-vis their ideological commitments in dealing with numerous challenges, are well aware of the fact that if the regime goes down, they will go down with it. They would want to prevent or circumvent such a development at all costs. They do not want to see a repeat of the circumstances that enabled them to topple the Shah’s monarchy. The Shia version of the Islamic government that the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who ruled from 1979 to 1989), laid down is well entrenched. The regime is resourceful enough to quell any domestic uprisings, and to counter any outside attacks through a strategy of asymmetrical warfare that it has nurtured, as its actions over the last year have shown.
Meanwhile, the Islamic republic is not as isolated as one might think. It has expanded ties with Russia and China; Russia has become not only Iran’s main partner in saving the Assad regime in Syria but also a major arms supplier and a serious investor in the Iranian economy. For example, Russian energy companies have invested as much as $50 billion in oil and gas exploration in Iran, including development of the South Pars fields, which French energy company Total abandoned under the threat of secondary sanctions.
Ignoring US sanctions, China still imports some 10 per cent of its annual oil consumption from Iran. It has forged extensive economic, trade and strategic ties with the Islamic republic. It has expanded its activities in Iran, providing funding and technical assistance for projects ranging from railways to hospitals to nuclear reactors. The Chinese state-owned investment arm, CITIC Group, established a $10-billion credit line with Tehran in 2018, and the China Development Bank promised $15 billion more. During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in January 2016, the two sides signed seventeen agreements for cooperation in areas including energy, trade and industry. They pledged to increase bilateral trade more than tenfold to $600 billion in the next decade. Further, Beijing wants Iran to be a key plank in its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious network of road, rail and port routes that will connect China to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Similarly, India remains committed to maintaining good relations with Iran, for two important reasons. One is its reliance on Iran for at least 10 per cent of its national oil consumption. The second is India’s partnership with Iran in building the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Gulf. While Pakistan blocks the transit of Indian goods through its territory, Indian use of the new port will allow it to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Indian position is troublesome for President Trump, who has urged India to play a greater role in Afghanistan as part of a US exit strategy but cannot endorse India’s strategic involvement with Iran.
In addition, Iran is selling oil to Turkey and its trade is booming with the United Arab Emirates as the country’s largest trading partner. Most of its transactions with friendly countries take place on a barter basis or under special arrangements that do not overtly violate US sanctions. The smuggling networks that are very common in the region also provide relief.
Tehran is elated, as are Moscow and Hezbollah, by Trump’s policy disarray in relation to Syria. The decision to withdraw 2000 US troops from Syria, and then send some of them back on the pretence of protecting the country’s depleted oil fields has complicated Washington’s relations with one of its main NATO allies and signalled the end of its support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which valiantly fought the so-called Islamic State (IS) on the US side. The decision also amounted to a public acknowledgement that the Moscow–Tehran–Damascus–Hezbollah axis, with Ankara playing its distinct role, is now firmly in control of Syria’s future, and that the United States can do little to reverse this reality. It also goes against Trump’s professed determination to expel Iranian and Hezbollah fighters from Syria, although he has made no reference to the Russian presence, lending weight to the accusation that he is vulnerable to Moscow. This is all cold comfort for Israel, which wants Trump to hit Iran as hard as possible.
Tehran is also pleased with President Trump’s efforts to make a military exit from neighbouring Afghanistan. As far as the Iranian regime is concerned, the sooner the United States leaves Afghanistan the better, provided that the US withdrawal is orderly and does not disadvantage Iran. Tehran has opposed the presence of American military bases in Afghanistan, fearing their use against Iran in the event of a confrontation. The regime is closely observing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. The Taliban’s demand that any settlement should be conditional on withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is an objective that Tehran strongly supports. In view of the Taliban’s close ties with Pakistan, Tehran has carved out a crucial niche of influence in Afghanistan. It has forged extensive cross-border economic, trade and cultural ties with western Afghanistan, segments of Afghanistan’s 15- to 20-per-cent Shia minority, and a number of strongmen in Afghan politics. Tehran has been one of the largest sources of funding for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, financing a significant number of projects, including at least three pro-Iranian television stations. Today, Iran is Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner.
Settling the Afghanistan conundrum is by no means easy. The country’s conflict is deeply entangled with Indo-Pakistani disputes, the Pakistani-Saudi strategic partnership, Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and Russo-American and Sino-US competition. In this context, Tehran has found that it is in its interest to engage in policy coordination with like-minded capitals, namely Moscow and New Delhi, and at the same time open direct dialogue with the Taliban. It expects the Taliban to emerge as a key player in Afghan politics in the event of a political settlement and a US-troop withdrawal.
The Iranian Islamic regime is in a stronger position than Washington may have assumed. Confirming this point, the 2019 annual report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London asserts that despite all the US pressure, the Islamic republic has remained resilient and has expanded its regional influence. The Islamic regime has so far countered Trump’s policy of maximum pressure with maximum resistance. The biggest casualty of Trump’s Iran policy is the JCPOA, as Trump’s withdrawal from it has also prompted Tehran to roll back some of its commitment. This in turn has lately caused the European signatories—the United Kingdom, France and Germany—to trigger a dispute mechanism and put Tehran on notice. The JCPOA is on life support, despite all the efforts by the other signatories (except for the United States) to keep it alive because of its significance for regional and international security.
The Iranian regime is squeezed financially, but the sanctions are unlikely to bring it to its knees, just as US-led sanctions failed to topple Saddam Hussein. It is Iranian society that bears most of the burden. Yet, however debilitating the sanctions may be, the Iranian public, in the face of a US and/or Israeli military attack, will undoubtedly rally behind the regime as a matter of national duty, even if many Iranians are opposed to it.
Amin Saikal is retired Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University, and author of Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic (Princeton University Press, 2019) and co-author (with James Piscatori) of Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019).