No decision has yet been made by Iran to de-escalate and rein in its belligerent policies despite signs that a direct military standoff with the US – following the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and the Iranian reprisal through missile strikes on US bases in Iraq – has been contained. The divide in the ranks of Iran's leadership follows the reformist-hardliner fault line. One camp, represented by foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, declared that the response to Suleimani's killing is over. The other faction has pledged a massive operation against US forces throughout the Middle East, which experts reckon would take the form of a series of simultaneous attacks on several targets in several countries.
One driver of a potential round of attacks is US President Donald Trump’s decision to step up sanctions against the country’s leaders and on Iran’s industries beyond the oil sector. On the other hand, leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its expeditionary arm, the Quds Force, has vowed to exact “a tougher revenge on the enemy”. Speaking at a news conference in front of the banners of Iran’s multi-national proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace force, said plans are under way to launch major operations aiming to “expel US forces from the region”.
US officials take the Iranian threats very seriously. They have developed military plans alongside fresh sanctions that sources say will target the core of Iran’s nuclear programme. This is especially since Tehran has announced its intention to double its uranium enrichment levels and hinted at withdrawing from the nuclear deal with world’s major powers – as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. The decision taken in Washington is to prevent Iran and its proxies from achieving their goal of driving out US forces from the region and destroying those threatening to "return US troops in coffins", as Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said.
The Trump administration is focused on protecting US embassies in the region, especially Iraq and Lebanon. This comes after reports indicating that the Quds Force intends to mobilise its proxies to stage unrest outside of diplomatic missions and repeat what happened at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, when the building was overrun by mobs and its staff held hostage for 444 days.
In short, US military planning is not waiting for events to happen. It is pre-empting them as part of a new policy of anticipation and deterrence. According to informed sources, however, part of the US military preparations is being conducted together with Israel, in anticipation of Iranian escalation in Lebanon, but also in preparation for joint US-Israeli strikes on nuclear sites in Iran. This would take place in the event of Iranian attacks on key US bases in Bahrain and Kuwait, or Iranian escalation on the nuclear level. For this reason, it is still too early to conclude that the standoff is over, or that negotiations are around the corner, or that Iranian divisions have been settled in favour of reform instead of adventurism.
Some hope that it was a wise calculation that led Iran to launch ballistic missiles at US bases in a way that avoided inflicting casualties and preclude a crushing US response. Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, suggested the Iranian strike on bases housing US soldiers “intended to kill”, while other officials said casualties were avoided thanks to intelligence and early warnings. Either way, the death of US soldiers would have escalated the standoff, given that this is the red line Mr Trump declared from the beginning and did not back away from after he was accused of weakness for failing to respond to a previous Iranian downing of a US drone and the unprecedented attack on Saudi Aramco facilities last year.
The situation looks different now. Military mobilisation continues despite the end of the first round of confrontations. US military preparations must be taken seriously, as the it deploys air, land and sea assets, as if to remind everyone that it is still the world’s sole superpower and that it is not going to allow its prestige to be challenged. Meanwhile, Mr Trump is feeling increasingly self-assured after taking out Iran’s second-most important leader. Indeed, Suleimani’s elimination has meant taking down the strategic and executive head of Iran’s expansionism in the region. Suleimani was not only an extraordinary general but an extraordinary politician as well, widely seen as part of the future succession tapestry of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader. Even in the foreign policy domain, Suleimani came even before President Hassan Rouhani and Mr Zarif.
The situation suggests that the Quds Force has only two options in front of it: reform or collapse. Either it realises that with the absence of the top of the pyramid, things cannot go on as they were – especially in the light of US military mobilisation – or it does the equivalent of committing suicide.
The Trump administration has decided to proceed with measures that build on the assassination of Suleimani, namely to eliminate Iran’s project in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen once it is structurally weakened. If Tehran decides to go to war with the US to preserve its regional project, it will have to conduct its military calculations carefully. While it has the ability to inflict massive damage in Arab countries, taking on the US directly is a different matter. And if reports of US-Israeli coordination are accurate, then logic indicates such a war would pose an existential threat to Iran.
However, there is another dimension – related to US presidential elections. Iran has been watching closely, hoping Mr Trump’s impeachment attempts would lower his re-election chances. Tehran, though, must reconsider its bets because Mr Trump’s recent actions could go a long way in securing a second term, which would mean that it would have to deal with him for another four years. Wisdom requires that delusions be replaced with reality, such as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the regime’s first supreme leader, declared a ceasefire following eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s. Khomeini famously conceded having to “drink the poisoned cup” for the sake of his country. Perhaps the current leadership should also think about the interests of its people, who are paying the price of its stubbornness.
A third dimension concerns the economic situation. This is also the result of the leadership’s stubbornness, having rejected the European-backed offer from the US to negotiate on a new deal. If the stubbornness continues, sanctions will increase and cost more and Iran’s leaders could find themselves tempted by military actions that would in turn unleash a fatal confrontation.
Finally, the current situation is the outcome of Iran’s failed attempt to cause a rift across the Atlantic over the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. According to informed sources, some Iranian leaders are still threatening the European capitals of ripping up the deal and walking out of the NPT unless they pressure the US to back down and activate the financial mechanism that would remove the sanctions. But this is dangerous thinking as it would trigger US and Israeli strikes inside Iran, according to the sources.
The wise option would be for Tehran to return to negotiations. Washington will not agree to negotiations on conditions set by the regime of lifting or suspending sanctions first. Iran has to agree to new negotiations for a new deal, especially given that Europe has inched closer to the American position. It must carefully study the situation on the ground in the wake of Suleimani’s killing. It must also come to terms with the possibility that Mr Trump will remain in the White House until 2025 – along with his crippling sanctions and the mobilisation of the world’s mightiest army.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute