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Iran believes Trump is bluffing

When President Donald Trump assumed office, Iranian leaders were cautious about issuing critical announcements against the new American administration or the US. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is known for his inflammatory speeches against the US or the “Great Satan,” did not mention the new administration for a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration.

President Trump’s statements through his campaign, with regard to countering Iran’s ideological and hegemonic ambitions, made the Iranian leaders wary. Iranian leaders began their work to feel out the new administration, to see whether Trump was serious in his promises to hold Iran accountable and to ally with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

But soon, Iranian leaders made a tactical shift to view the US intentions to counter Iran as trivial and unreal. Based on the latest developments from Iran’s state-owned newspapers and Iranian leaders’ speeches and announcements, the Islamic Republic is increasingly becoming confident that the Trump administration is not serious about countering Iran. Several Iranian officials, including Ali Akbar Velayati, who is a close adviser to Khamenei, have stated that the Trump administration is bluffing with regard to its Iran policy. 

Iran has transformed this belief into action. It tested a medium-range ballistic missile, and confirmed that it has conducted missile and radar tests. Following that, the Islamic Republic held a military exercise that took place in the Semnan Province. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) made it clear that these actions are to project Iran’s military power as well as to respond to and dismiss President Trump’s words. Soon after, Iran began a naval drill near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. 

A message to the Trump administration

Iranian leaders across the political spectrum believe that it is a tactically and strategically intelligent move to conduct such military operations since the Trump administration is not serious about countering Tehran. Since Tehran does not observe any tangible pressure, Iranian leaders also find it necessary to send a message to the Trump administration and regional powers that Tehran will not alter the core pillars of its foreign and regional policy.

As part of its pursuit of regional hegemonic ambitions, the Islamic Republic is showcasing its military and hard power in an attempt to assert regional preeminence and superiority. Iran’s military believes that its showcasing of military and hard power is working; as a result it is also attempting to push the US and its allies into pursuing appeasement policies with Tehran.

These messages have also been echoed by top IRGC leaders. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari stated previously: “US officials know that threats against Iran are not only useless, but also harmful… The greatest achievement of the Islamic Revolution is (the US) confession of the splendor and greatness of the revolution.”

Tehran is confident the US is not serious in its threats — and if this is not addressed it will become increasingly difficult to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The IRGC deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, shrugged off the previous statements by the Trump administration: “America’s power is declining as a result of its wrong and interventionist policies. Its threats have continued, though, and its economic war against Iran will not end,” he is reported as saying. “As (America’s) political and geopolitical power has declined, its breathing space — especially at strategic points in the Muslim world — has tightened.”

Esmail Kowsari, another leading IRGC officer and former MP, also said: “Based on their consultations with their advisers, American presidents utter slogans but do not have the ability to attack Iran militarily… If Americans had the ability to attack Iran militarily, they would not delay a moment to do so.”

The moderates hold similar views to the hard-liners when it comes to disregarding the US warnings. President Rouhani stated: “(Trump) is new to politics. He has been in a different world. It’s a totally new environment to him… It will take him a long time and will cost the United States a lot, until he learns what is happening in the world.”

For Iranian leaders to take the US seriously or to recalculate their military adventurism, several developments need to occur. Iran views geopolitical, diplomatic, economic and military pressures as signs of determination and seriousness. In addition, Tehran takes broad sanctions, which mainly affect its export of oil and the IRGC’s trades, seriously. These can be carried out by an alliance between regional powers, which are concerned about Iran’s destabilizing behavior, and President Trump.

If the Trump administration and regional powers do not adequately and proportionately respond to Iran’s military adventurism, Tehran will further view this as sign of weakness. Subsequently, Iran will continue to escalate its military adventurism and expansionism to further tip the regional balance of power in its favor.

The later that Iran’s military adventurism is countered by the Trump administration and regional powers, the harder it will be to counter Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions — and the harder it will be to make Tehran take the US or regional powers seriously.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.