Is an embattled Iran preparing for military escalation?

Angered by the West's move away from the nuclear talks, the regime is weighing its options

The Iranian Defence Ministry allegedly test fires its home-built surface-to-surface Fateh 110 missile in 2010. Tehran has developed a wide range of sophisticated missiles. AFP
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The Iranian regime seems ready to trigger a major crisis in the region to divert attention away from the domestic unrest currently engulfing the country. It is preparing either to launch pre-emptive strikes on Israel, or respond to possible Israeli military operations against it, when Benjamin Netanyahu returns as Israeli Prime Minister.

The regime is angry about the growing distance that the Biden administration and the European powers are putting between themselves and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a deal that could have brought sanctions relief to Iran and allowed the regime to embark on a project of economic recovery and regional dominance.

There has indeed been a change in mood in both the US and Europe towards Iran. One reason for this is Tehran’s involvement in the Ukraine war. There are also growing fears over its nuclear and cyber capabilities, as well a sharp escalation in Israeli and American pledges to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.

During last week's Manama Dialogue, it was clear that American, British and other western leaders were bringing with them a message to the Arab states: we are here and we will not abandon you.

In his remarks, Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, repeated a joke common in Arab circles: "America is back, but for how long?" Mr McGurk was making sure to articulate the change in the American political mood, talking up the new US security investments in the region and arguing that it would be imprudent to doubt Washington's motives at a time when it is investing deeply in this region.

Mr McGurk said US policy in the Middle East is not just pragmatic but also ambitious, and is founded on five principles: partnership, deterrence, diplomacy, integration and values. He added that there is a recent sea change taking place in how the world sees Iran.

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Europe was all but subservient to Iran in the nuclear talks. Today, it has acknowledged its error

For his part, US undersecretary of defence for dolicy Colin Kahl sought to convince the Gulf states that Russia and China are no alternatives to the US. He hinted that while there is nothing wrong in developing economic relations with China and other powers, the regional states' security relationship remains with the US.

Dr Kahl added that the world has entered a new age of competition, but not one that's between countries but between coalitions. He presented Washington's vision based on collaborative deterrence, with partnerships that exclude the deployment of US forces on the battleground, stressing that shared intelligence is a key foundation of deterrence in the regional security architecture.

Gen Erik Kurilla, who heads the US Central Command, tackled military technology innovation, stressing the need to work closely on new processes and concepts of security to guarantee stability in the region. Echoing Mr McGurk's remarks, Gen Kurilla was keen to repeat the word "together".

The West's increased reliance on its co-operation with the Gulf states on matters of security, when in the past it was the other way around, represents an important shift on its part in the region. Just as critical is its upgrading of Iran from a regional threat to a global one.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who opened the Manama Dialogue, conceded that “several Gulf countries have been warning for years about the risk that Iran feeds rogue nations around the world with drones”. She added: “It took us too long to understand a very simple fact that while we work to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we must also focus on other forms of weapons proliferation, from drones to ballistic missiles. It is a security risk, not just for the Middle East but for us all."

Not long ago, Europe was all but subservient to the Iranian regime in the nuclear talks, allowing it to exclude any talk about its regional behaviour and its drone and missile programmes from the negotiations. Today, it has acknowledged its error.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain's capital this month. AFP

This change has left Tehran even more antagonistic towards the West, particularly as its regime feels besieged at home and unable to contain the protests despite its brutal crackdown. Yet, it doesn’t consider itself to be weak. It has surprised the world with its military development, to the point that Moscow is relying on its drones and missiles.

I am told by an insider that Iran possesses missile technology on par with that of North Korea, and that it is capable of hitting positions within Israel. The insider also says Iran’s missile capabilities are more advanced than those of Israel.

The regime, meanwhile, is trying to tell the world that it has completed its plans for a conflict. A possible war might not even wait until possible Israeli provocations against it have taken place, but could happen pre-emptively to damage the latter’s infrastructure. It has assessed that if pre-emptive strikes are launched simultaneously from its territory as well as from Gaza, through Hamas, Israel is unlikely to have enough time to respond. Furthermore, Iran’s cyber capabilities will allow it to launch effective attacks on Israeli and American systems.

Iranian decision-makers are communicating to their trusted interlocutors that they have different plans for multiple strikes inside Israel. Their assessment is that the US will not get involved in a war with Iran, given its preoccupation with the Ukraine conflict and because Washington doesn't want to be dragged into direct confrontations. In Tehran's estimation, Israel will be unable to retaliate against it unless it can guarantee American participation.

Tehran is apparently not seeking to take Israeli territory or attack US forces in Syria. But it feels the need to engage in a direct clash with Israel, rather than fighting through its usual proxies. The regime feels it has nothing to lose if it engages in what it describes as "necessary adventurism" to save itself.

According to another insider, the regime is unlikely to use Lebanon in a possible escalation, as it is mindful of its indirect accords with Israel that culminated in a deal to demarcate the Lebanon-Israel maritime border.

Next week, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with Mr Netanyahu that will cover a range of issues, including Ukraine, Iran and Syria. It will thereafter become clearer to us whether Iranian officials are simply sending up trial balloons or they truly have pre-emptive war plans.

Published: November 27, 2022, 2:39 PM
Updated: November 29, 2022, 7:28 AM