It should hardly come as a surprise that, the moment Iran’s clerical regime finds itself under pressure at home, it tries to divert the attention of the country’s restless populace by raising the prospect of a fresh confrontation with the West.
It is a tactic that has been used many times since the ayatollahs came to power in 1979. The US embassy crisis in the early 1980s, for example, when Tehran held 52 American diplomats and civilians hostage for a total of 444 days, was a classic example of the ayatollahs using an international incident to divert attention away from concerns closer to home. In that particular case, the trouble was related to the regime’s brutal repression of its political opponents.
It was a similar scenario at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when it became clear that Tehran was going to end up on the losing side, and the Revolutionary Guards began mining the shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz. The prospect of the world’s energy supplies facing serious interruption prompted the intervention of the US Fifth Fleet, supported by the Royal Navy, thereby enabling the ayatollahs to blame their defeat on the infidel West, rather than their own military ineptitude.
After all, the notion that Iran is the unwitting victim of foreign meddling is deeply embedded in the national psyche.
Now, at a time when Iran finds itself under intense pressure over the parlous state its economy, Tehran is quietly stoking the flames of renewed tensions with the West in the hope that it can refocus the minds of ordinary Iranians on their visceral hatred for the US and its allies.
In the past week, American intelligence officials have accused Iran of planning attacks against US forces in the region, as well as Washington’s allies, prompting the US to increase its military presence in the area as a precaution. Then, as if to confirm Washington’s suspicions, the Iranians have been accused of sabotaging four oil tankers operating in the Gulf.
In addition, President Hassan Rouhani has threatened to resume work within 60 days on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme — a key element in its drive to acquire nuclear weapons — if the Europeans do not take practical steps to alleviate Iran’s economic hardship, caused in large measure by the Trump administration’s decision to reimpose sanctions.
While the Iranians initially insisted the sanctions would have little impact, the reality has been very different, with the rial, the national currency, suffering a 60 per cent fall, inflation up by nearly 40 per cent and oil exports reduced to their lowest level in nearly a decade. This is the price Iran is having to pay for its failure to live up to the expectations that were raised when the former US president Barack Obama helped to negotiate the nuclear deal in 2015, a move which many hoped would cause Tehran to adopt a more responsible approach in its dealings with the outside world.
Instead, the ayatollahs have chosen the opposite course. In the four years since signing the nuclear deal, Iran has expanded its military presence throughout the Middle East in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. It has also actively sought to foment political instability in some of Washington’s key regional Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, headquarters to the US Fifth Fleet and, more recently, the Royal Navy’s new base in the Gulf.
This has persuaded the Trump administration — quite rightly, in my view — that the appropriate response to Iran’s malign activities is to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement whereby Iran pledged to freeze its nuclear programme in return for sanctions being lifted.
The question now, with Washington making it abundantly clear that it has no intention of giving in to Iranian intimidation, is just how far the ayatollahs are going to push their latest escalation. For all of Tehran’s bluster, the Revolutionary Guards are no match for the military firepower of the US and its allies, and any renewed attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz is likely to provoke a devastating response from Washington.
It should also be remembered that, when the Trump administration first withdrew from the JCPOA last year, it did so on the basis that it wanted to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Tehran, one that covered all aspects of Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, rather than focusing mainly on the issue of uranium enrichment.
The offer to reopen negotiations, then, is the best way for Iran to get its economy back on track, instead of provoking a fresh confrontation with the West — one it has no earthly chance of winning.
—Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2019
Con Coughlin is a noted political columnist who specialises in the Middle East.