US President Donald Trump will not rush to activate the military option against Iran, as long as it does not take retaliatory measures against US interests in the Gulf region, which include international navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC member states, and Israel in the broader Middle East.
The first red line for the US is American soldiers in the region, especially in Iraq. Mr Trump does not favour involvement in unpopular wars in faraway countries, but he will not hesitate for a second to respond militarily to what he considers Iranian provocations. Practically speaking, the ball is in Iran’s court.
Washington will not initiate action, regardless of the claims by those who believe that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are hawks planning a war, similar to George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, based on fabricated pretexts and intelligence.
The diplomatic ball is also on the Iranian side, if Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the hardliners in the IRGC accept that the time has come to revise the logic of their regime in exporting the Islamic revolution to Iran’s neighbours, with paramilitary groups aligned to Iran, such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So, what does the regime in Iran want? What course of action will Iran's leaders – the mullahs and paramilitary commanders, not the ineffective elected leaders who are not serious about moderation – decide on? If these leaders decide that their interest lies in holding on to the present logic of the regime, there will be no US-Iranian dialogue, and no relief from sanctions that are set to bring the Iranian economy to its knees.
Instead, tensions will escalate and edge close to confrontation, especially if Iran decides to avenge itself against the Trump administration. And it will be the Iranian people who will pay the price. However, if the Iranian leadership concludes that the best option for Iran, its people and themselves is to alter their behaviour and radically reform the regime’s long-standing logic, this will mark a new era in the Gulf, the Middle East, and their relationship with the US.
Sources say that the highest echelons of power in Iran have decided on “strategic recklessness” rather than on negotiations. They say that Tehran will accept no half-solutions, and will not agree to back down from its project for regional expansion or the regime’s core logic.
According to these sources, Tehran’s strategy is to push the state of play with Washington into a “red zone”, deliberately drawing it into military action in response to Iranian action in the region, possibly against Saudi oil facilities. The leaders in Tehran want to engineer a Cuban crisis scenario in the region, believing the world will mobilise against the US as a result of the costs and global implications of a military confrontation.
Iran's dire economic straits have so far led Ayatollah Khamenei to adopt a strategy of intransigence. The logic behind this is that he believes any military action against Iran will cause domestic reactions that will benefit the regime. It also seeks to contain any resentment and any possibility of mutiny against it.
The Iranian leadership is betting that pushing things into this red zone will take the region to the brink. It also believes that, for fear of what might transpire, major powers such as Russia, China, and the European states could pressure the US to suspend its entire Iran policy – military, economic and political. This way, Iran would ultimately emerge victorious.
According to sources familiar with the state of affairs in Tehran, the Iranian leadership is not interested in reforming the regime and will not accept any such conditions. They say that those in power are prepared to set fire to the entire region before they entertain any possibility of changing the regime’s logic.
The Iranian leadership is, according to those sources, seriously considering withdrawing from the nuclear deal and, possibly, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty, in addition to taking direct measures against the Gulf states and their oil interests. Hezbollah is, they add, on standby to ignite the Lebanese front against Israel as soon as US military operations begin against Iran. They added that Tehran has started the countdown to armed conflict, predicted that a confrontation would erupt within days and stressed that the war would be region-wide.
Tehran’s wager is that Russia, China, and Europe will panic and put pressure on the US, which, in turn, will force the Trump administration to back down. This is an extremely dangerous game.
China will not side with Iran against the US, especially in the midst of trade negotiations with Washington and the forging of long-term strategic relations. Europe will scramble, but it will not practically support Iran and cannot put much pressure on the US anyway. Russia will not rush to the rescue when it becomes clear that Tehran prefers war-baiting to strategies such as adaptation and reform. Moreover, Moscow will not be able to support Iran if it withdraws from the nuclear deal or the non-proliferation treaty.
According to sources, Tehran’s decisions have been made and are irreversible.
The US president’s strategy did not adopt the military option as its cornerstone. Rather, it relies on economic strangulation of Iran, which includes halting Iran’s oil exports. Tehran believes that dragging Mr Trump towards war serves its interests. Either he chooses to go into a military confrontation he did not plan on, or backs down, apologises and enters negotiations.
Mr Trump spoke again about looking forward to negotiating with the Iranians, believing that economic pressures will force the leaders in Tehran to the table. In the past, some surmised that Washington could forgo its demand that Iran halt its regional expansions in return for its compliance to demands regarding adjusting the nuclear deal and its ballistic missile programs. This way, Donald Trump will score a historic achievement and no one can accuse him of betraying promises and abandoning friends.
Reports suggest Oman could again play a role in facilitating secret negotiations between the US and Iran to avert a military confrontation. Regardless of its intentions, this is problematic. The objection from Gulf nations would not be to any attempt to avoid conflict, but against bilateral negotiations about the fate of the region that exclude the Arab countries from any potential US-Iranian deal.
This deal is exactly what the Iranian leadership wants after or shortly before the military confrontation erupts. In the view of the Iranians, there is no way for the regime to survive and continue its model of theocratic government, its exporting of the Islamic revolution, and its bid to replicate its paramilitaries in the Arab world and beyond without pushing the entire region to the brink.
The Trump administration has now mobilised, deploying B-52 bombers to the Middle East. Mr Pompeo and Mr Bolton are not the only US officials who have issued stern warnings to Iran. General Kenneth F McKenzie of the US Central Command, has also spoken about the Iranian threat, saying that preparations must be made for all contingencies. The Iranian position described by sources portends bad things. But what will the US response be? The whole world is watching and waiting to find out.