One year after Suleimani's killing, Iran refuses to learn its lessons

Instead of ending its aggressive approach to both the US and its neighbours in the Middle East, the regime has chosen to maintain its bellicose attitude

To judge from the wild claims that have been emanating from Tehran, as the country marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, the regime has learnt nothing from the demise of its leader.

From Hossein Salami, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to the country's foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, key regime figures have been lining up to make provocative New Year statements that will serve only to deepen Tehran's isolation from most of the world.

Speaking at an inspection of Iranian troops stationed on occupied Abu Musa island, Mr Salami warned that Iran is ready to match any aggression by the US with decisive and firm blows, while Mr Zarif accused departing US President Donald Trump of threatening Iran after Washington deployed B-52 strategic bombers to the region ahead of the anniversary of Suleimani's killing at Baghdad airport last year.

Mr Trump authorised the American military build-up after US intelligence officials reported that there were indications that Iran was planning an attack on American interests and allies in Iraq to avenge the killing of the Quds Force head. In addition to sending B-52s to the Gulf, Washington has also deployed submarines equipped with cruise missiles.

Last month, the US accused Iran-backed militias of being responsible for a series of rocket attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad, prompting Mr Trump to threaten Iran directly on Twitter. “We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” the President tweeted. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: if one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

This prompted Mr Zarif to accuse the Trump administration of seeking to provoke a war with Tehran before Mr Trump’s presidency draws to a close later this month.

“Instead of fighting Covid in the US, [Donald Trump] & cohorts waste billions to fly B-52s & send armadas to OUR region,” the foreign minister tweeted. “Intelligence from Iraq indicates plot to FABRICATE pretext for war. Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”

Irrespective of whether there is any truth to the suggestions that Mr Trump is spoiling for a fight with Tehran in the dying days of his administration, there has certainly been a significant escalation of tensions in the region, not least because of Iran’s provocative action over its nuclear programme.

At a time when President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that he wants to revive the controversial nuclear deal with Iran, the regime has responded by announcing that it is now aiming to enrich uranium to 20 per cent, a blatant breach of its undertakings under the nuclear deal and a move which will significantly enhance Iran's ability to acquire weapons grade nuclear material.

The move represents a significant escalation in Tehran’s increasingly contemptuous attitude towards what remains of the nuclear deal, and makes the prospect of the incoming Biden administration being able to re-engage in a constructive dialogue with Iran increasingly unlikely.

On one level, it is easy to understand why key regime figures in Tehran are so keen to start the new year by seeking to intensify their hostile rhetoric towards the US and its allies.

So far as the hardliners are concerned, the Iranian leadership will look back at 2020 as a year to forget. It got off to a disastrous start with the assassination of Suleimani, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was personally responsible for overseeing the expansion of Iran's malign influence throughout the Middle East.

In Syria, Suleimani was personally responsible for helping to keep the Assad regime in power, and played a critical role in persuading Russia to launch its military intervention in support of President Bashar Al Assad, a move that proved vital to keeping his regime in power.

In addition, Suleimani was responsible for creating the network of Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq as part of Tehran’s attempts to exert its hegemony over its political establishment. Suleimani’s other achievements included providing arms and funding to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and helping Hezbollah to become the dominant force in Lebanese politics.

Suleimani’s killing, therefore, represented a significant setback for the hardline supporters of Mr Khamenei, as it deprived the regime of its most effective and accomplished operator in terms of expanding Iranian influence throughout the region.

Apart from Suleimani’s demise, the regime has also had to contend with the crippling impact of the Trump administration’s sanctions on the Iranian economy, with the rial losing more than half of its value, and both unemployment and inflation running well above 20 per cent.

With a new round of presidential elections due to take place in June, regime hardliners are keen to steer the political narrative in Iran away from their own shortcomings and concentrate instead on blaming the outside world for all their problems. At the same time, the regime is continuing to undertake a number of highly provocative acts that are guaranteed to increase tensions with Washington. For example, apart from increasing uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, it was recently revealed that Hezbollah has doubled the arsenal of advanced guided missiles it keeps trained on Israel.

Consequently, rather than learning any lessons from Suleimani’s demise and ending Tehran’s aggressive approach to both the US and its neighbours in the Middle East, the regime has decided to maintain its bellicose attitude, ensuring that Iran continues to present a threat to the outside world that should be reckoned with.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National