Iran’s high-stakes game of chicken
Barack Obama’s 2013 failure to police his own red lines following the gruesome murder of about 1,400 civilians with chemical weapons is widely perceived as the moment when the course of the Syrian conflict altered irretrievably. As Western credibility and relevance withered and died, Russia established itself as the dominant broker, using uncontested air power to allow shattered regime forces and Iranian proxies to regain control of core areas of Syria; with an incalculable cost to civilian lives.
In retrospect, Donald Trump’s dithering over whether to respond to multiple Iranian provocations — including the unprovoked shooting down of an unmanned US military aircraft — may be the moment when American credibility became fatally undermined, further emboldening the ayatollahs toward consolidating their regional dominance, safe in the knowledge that they could strike foreign targets with apparent impunity.
It is not yet clear whether a reported US cyberattack against Iranian missile deployment systems had a significant impact. However, the Stuxnet virus attack against Iranian nuclear installations, discovered in 2010, was a principal motivator behind Iran’s own shift into cyberwarfare, with Tehran now boasting the capability to attack the critical electronic infrastructure of states around the world. So the unfortunate net impact could be to shift this conflict into indiscriminate attacks against a far broader spectrum of targets.
If the downed drone had been an isolated incident, then perhaps Trump’s incoherent musings that this was the act of a “loose and stupid” junior officer might have made some kind of sense. However, that theory was shot down in flames when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami proclaimed: “The downing of the American drone is an open, clear and categorical message… This is the way the Iranian nation deals with its enemies.”
The IRGC and Iran’s foreign proxies have been unleashed to test US resolve on multiple fronts. In recent weeks, there have been attacks against six oil tankers in the Gulf. Missiles have been fired at oil installations in Basra, near the US Embassy in Baghdad, and against other American bases in Iraq, including Camp Taji (north of Baghdad) and a compound near Mosul. The Iran-backed Houthis have claimed a succession of strikes deep into Saudi territory — one hitting the arrivals hall of a civilian airport, along with attacks on oil pipelines — with these forces now claiming the use of Iran-supplied cruise missiles. A car bomb in Kabul that targeted American troops has been linked to Tehran. The regime does all this, then hubristically declares that “firing one bullet” at Iran will set the region on fire.
The Islamic Republic habitually expresses itself through violence, and its quasi-Mafioso messages don’t get any clearer than this: The regime is inviting — daring — US retaliation. Tehran’s warmongers and ayatollahs will be jubilant that they forced the leader of the free world to blink first.
When the bluff is called on world powers and red lines prove to be blurred lines, it becomes open season for rogue states.
Iran is playing a high-stakes game. Sanctions are crushing the life out of its economy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knows the leadership cannot withstand a possible Trump presidency through to 2024. Its capacity to retaliate deteriorates by the day.
Thus, Khamenei appears to have decided to force the US president’s hand; knowing that much of the international community loathes Trump and views the regime’s predicament with bemused sympathy. The ayatollahs watched Trump ratchet up the pressure against North Korea, and then Venezuela, before failing to follow through on his threats. Trump transparently fears getting bogged down in a Middle Eastern conflict. They consequently dole out increasingly brazen provocations that he has, thus far, not dared to answer. Is this a perversely high-stakes game of chicken — or Russian roulette?
Iran’s leaders view Western states as powerful, but cowardly. When their proxies fired missiles near the US Consulate in Basra, the Americans abandoned the site. The US is reportedly evacuating its base at Balad in central Iraq and withdrawing contract workers over security concerns. Likewise, prior to 2011, attacks by Iranian proxies compelled coalition forces to exit as fast as they could. Trump is in even more of a hurry to quit Syria. Meanwhile, European states have no sensible remedy for the disintegration of the nuclear deal, so they run around like headless chickens trying to sweet-talk Iran into pretending the situation is business as usual.
Each new Iranian provocation further exposes its enemy’s weakness and strategic floundering. Despite his crude rhetoric, Trump lacks any vision for containment or regime change. Attacks against Gulf shipping and threats against the Strait of Hormuz are ratcheting up oil prices and could undermine the global economy to the degree where Trump loses all stomach for this fight. A $53 billion ExxonMobil deal with Baghdad has been frozen over security concerns, insurance rates on tankers have risen tenfold, and airlines have been diverted from Gulf flight paths.
However, Iran’s mistake is treating Trump as a rational, predictable politician. He isn’t. Trump fears appearing weak and, if he perceives that Tehran has willfully attacked his ego, he will lash out in a manner that may not be proportionate or containable. If these belligerent parties inadvertently embark on a cycle of escalation, the result will be ruinous for both sides. I, like most people, detest war in all its forms; and indeed the worst possible scenario would be a protracted conflict that leaves some form of the regime in place — or perhaps something worse.
When the bluff is called on world powers and red lines prove to be blurred lines, it becomes open season for rogue states to aggressively assert themselves and expand their boundaries. One of the great untold stories of the past decade is the silent demise of conflict resolution and judicial institutions for enforcing the international order. In the resulting vacuum, bully states pursue whatever they can get away with: Like 18th century expansionist imperialism, but with bigger weapons.
Why, in Iran’s case, does the world regard attacks against commercial vessels, diplomatic missions, civilian airports and oil pipelines as an almost normal, overlookable way of pursuing its agenda? Other rogue states will be ecstatically taking notes on how to challenge, divide and intimidate the international community.
The ayatollahs senselessly sacrificed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen during the 1980s conflict with Iraq. They would readily do so again, but would prefer to relocate the fight to Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, using cheap foreign proxies and disposable human shields.
Furthermore, Iran’s pledged return to enriching uranium is not a symbolic gesture. A nuclearized Iran could get away with infinitely greater provocations, knowing that its enemies would not dare retaliate. To avoid being held hostage to a future Iranian nuclear threat, tactical and ideological differences must be put aside. This is not just America’s problem. Iranian proxies already have a foothold toward Europe in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Russian, Chinese and Iranian interests are increasingly conflicted in Central Asia.
We all have a stake in a rules-based world where an embattled tin-pot regime cannot capriciously menace its neighbors. Tehran’s attempts to deflect conflict to the Arab world and Gulf waters must be thwarted. Meanwhile, the ayatollahs must not be allowed to sleep peacefully in their beds as long as their paramilitary, terrorist and nuclear ambitions seek to subvert the world order.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.