By Rafiq Khoury, Independent Arabia online news website
In his memoirs, former Israeli President Shimon Peres (1923-2016) writes: “[Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben Gurion and I were traveling together from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem one day. Ben Gurion, who had not spoken for the better part of the journey, suddenly broke his silence. He said Leon Trotsky was not a statesman, and Lenin was a consummate statesman, because Trotsky was believer in the notion of ‘neither war nor peace’. He added that a true statesman must accept the cost of both war and peace.”
Can one view Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s declaration as “neither war nor negotiation” in the same way?
Mr. Khamenei’s strategy seems to allow for the possibility of both war and negotiation while he and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) senior commanders continue their fiery rhetoric and cold calculations. Iran has threatened to unleash hell in the Middle East if the U.S. launches a military attack on the country. Although both Washington and Tehran know that neither side can cross the red line, they continue their war of words.
Speaking of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973-1977) famously said: “It is a pity both sides cannot lose.” Almost 30 years later, the U.S. and Iran have both declared victory in a war that has not been fought. Tehran claims that its power and influence in the region have scared off President Donald Trump’s government and the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy believes that its massive presence in the Persian Gulf has prevented attacks by Iranian-backed militias on American interests and military forces in the region.
Boasting of their military capabilities is a calculated tactic by Iran and the U.S. to avoid both a limited armed confrontation and an all-out war. Neither Mr. Trump nor the clerics in Tehran, who are funding Shia militia forces in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and terrorist groups in the Gulf States and around the globe, want war.
It is unclear whether the Islamic Republic could fight a war with a superpower such as America. Current military and political posturing between Iran and the U.S. resembles a territorial fight among bulls. It stems from delusions of grandeur by those involved. An excellent example of such grandstanding was Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, the second Egyptian president (1956-70), who nationalized the Suez Canal. Self-importance is a mere illusion without the backing of a healthy economy.
President Trump’s primary goal for withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, was to increase economic pressure on Iran. He re-imposed all economic sanctions on Iran that his predecessor President Barack Obama had lifted after the JCPOA agreement. Despite being in the midst of a severe financial crisis, the Islamic Republic continues to supply Shia militia groups under its control with ballistic missiles.
Tehran is trying to show its mastery of crisis management. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami, who has a reputation for exaggerating and inflating Iran’s military capabilities, recently claimed that Trump’s hardline policies had strengthened Iran’s influence in the region and allowed it to become a player on the global stage. If that is the case, why did Ayatollah Khamenei find it necessary to decree that Islam prohibited the development of the atomic bomb and of chemical weapons, given that Iran has invested millions of dollars in its nuclear program, parts of which it reluctantly halted under international pressure? Is that program only for generating electricity or developing nuclear technology, as Tehran has claimed?
The question is, what are the two sides betting on in a war that has not happened yet? Haven’t Iran and the U.S. learned any lessons from the previous failed agreement? Do they really believe that they will be the only parties in the war if it ever breaks out?
During his visit to Japan in late May, Trump said that he was not seeking regime change in Iran. A few days later, his National Security Advisor John Bolton echoed the same sentiment on a trip to the UAE. All U.S. presidents since Ronald Reagan have insisted that they do not seek regime change in Iran and want the country’s ruling system to alter its behavior.
“Iran has not changed its behavior despite political and economic pressures,” acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said recently. Tehran makes no distinction between a call for changing its behavior and an attempt to overthrow the regime. The Islamic Republic would resemble Pakistan if the U.S. could halt its nuclear program and curb its regional influence. Iranian leaders believe that the Islamic Revolution and the state are intrinsically fused. However, Iran will never find a place among the international community until it constitutionally separates the two.
Separating the state from the Islamic Revolution has become a mission for the U.S. Irrespective of who occupies the White House, the U.S. would vehemently oppose any despotic regime that tried to gain power in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The Islamic Republic’s main problem is its harmful campaign in the Middle East, particularly against the Arab world. The U.S. does not face the same problem with Russia and China.
In early May, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran had offered to sign a non-aggression pact with all countries in the Persian Gulf. This is curious, given Iran’s military involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. How does Iran explain a string of recent attacks on oil tankers belonging to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and a Norwegian company in the strait of Hormoz? Foreign Minister Zarif’s announcement is just a transparent attempt by Iran to recruit Arab countries’ help in its fight against the U.S.
Meanwhile, Arab countries held an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca on June 1, during which Saudi King Salman described a recent attack on oil tankers off the coast of the UAE and an armed drone assault on Saudi pipeline facilities as “terrorist acts.”
Trump has reportedly given his private telephone number to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to pass on to President Rouhani. He is still banking on Iran caving under pressure and renegotiating the nuclear deal. Mr. Khamenei has, however, rejected any talks with the U.S. in the current political climate, arguing that Washington’s primary aim is to halt Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Meanwhile, Iran has welcomed offers by Japan, Iraq, Oman, and Switzerland to mediate between Washington and Tehran. These countries have volunteered their help in defusing tensions between the two countries. However, the adage “mushrooms grow better in the dark” seems to best describe the current behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to resolve the tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
[Note: Independent Arabia is an online Arabic-language news website established in 2019 under a licensing agreement between the UK-based The Independent online newspaper and the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG). Rafiq Khoury is the former editor-in-chief of the Lebanon-based Arabic-language daily An-Nahar, and a member of the board of the Lebanese Union for Journalists and Writers.]
[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]