Iran and the future of endless disputes in the region under Raisi
The repeated Iranian attacks against US targets, consecutive Iranian strikes against oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea, and the dangerous messages conveyed in speeches by the incoming President Ebrahim Raisi point to an intensive military escalation by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s other military forces against the interests of regional and global powers in the Middle East.
Since Raisi’s election victory was announced on June 19, 2021, attacks carried out by Iran’s proxy militias have escalated, while those mounted by the IRGC have surged in hotspots where strategic commodities are transported.
Tehran was quick to proclaim a new episode of escalation by firing 14 missiles at the Ain Al-Asad air base in Baghdad, targeting the US Embassy in the city three times in July, and attacking Irbil International Airport near the US Consulate with Katyusha rockets and booby-trapped drones. Meanwhile, the Houthi militia stepped up attacks against Saudi Arabia, launching 14 drones and multiple ballistic missiles toward Saudi cities in a single day.
Iran has also escalated tension in the Arabian Sea and the channels there through which strategic commodities pass, sparking a “war of the tankers.” British sources reported on Aug. 3 that Iranian militias had attempted to hijack the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. Meanwhile, four ships passing through the Arabian Gulf issued warnings to other vessels announcing that they had lost control of their steering, indicating that they faced similar remote hijacking attempts.
Iran apparently was not satisfied with seeking to hijack these vessels and attempted to blow up other vessels. In July, Israeli decision-makers accused Tehran of being behind two attacks on vessels. In the first, Iran’s forces allegedly launched attacks on the cargo ship CSAV Tyndall in the Arabian Sea. The vessel sails under a Liberian flag and is thought to be owned by a number of partners, including an Israeli.
The second attack attributed to Iran was more lethal, with Iranian forces accused of being behind an attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street off the Omani coast on July 30. Two crew members, a Romanian and a British citizen, were killed.
These attacks prompted Tel Aviv to call on the international community to take urgent action over what it described as Tehran’s growing terrorist threat coinciding with the reign of Raisi.
The new president was a member of Iran’s infamous death committee in the 1980s and is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and IRGC chief Gen. Hossein Salami. The UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the dangers posed by the attacks on oil tankers. Several Western capitals, especially Washington, vowed a joint response to counter Iran’s threat.
Multiple indicators reflect Raisi’s escalatory policies against the interests of other regional and global powers. This escalation will likely involve operations near international crossings and corridors as well as in the country’s spheres of influence.
The first indicator came when Raisi highlighted the military inclinations of his government during his inauguration ceremony and honored the senior officers of the IRGC and Quds Force with front-row seats.
Also in the front rows were leaders of the militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as Naim Qassem of Hezbollah in Lebanon; head of the Houthi militia delegation Mohammed Abdel-Salam; Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas; and Islamic Jihad’s Ziyad Al-Nakhalah.
The second indicator was the large number of banners and posters adorning the inauguration venue venerating Qassem Soleimani and Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis, both killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad in January 2020. This veneration further supports the belief that the IRGC will tighten its grip on policymaking during Raisi’s tenure, and Tehran’s militias will spearhead the execution of tasks in the country’s spheres of influence.
The third indicator lay in the message conveyed by Raisi in his inaugural speech. He reiterated Iran’s support for those he referred to as “the oppressed” in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas in general, and in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, in particular.
This was a clear indication that Iran will continue to violate the sovereignty of other countries and interfere in their affairs via expanding its malign activities under the guise of helping the oppressed. This claim is clearly contradicted at home in Iran and in its spheres of influence by Tehran’s own actions.
The reality of Iran’s actions, as opposed to its words, reveal that Raisi is intent on escalating the campaign against Western interests in the region. Raisi sent a clear message that Iran will not accept any effort to link its nuclear program with its ballistic missile program and regional behavior, whatever the final outcome of the negotiations.
The international community, especially the US, must establish genuine and effective red lines and deter Iran immediately when it crosses them.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
He also made it clear that Iran will consider using all the available levers at its disposal to drive the remaining US forces out of Iraq, and will encourage its militias to intensify their attacks against US assets in Iraq. This is in contrast to the period of cautious calm that prevailed in Iraq during the last days of Hassan Rouhani’s term in office when he pressured the militias to cease their attacks — a move that coincided with the resumption of nuclear negotiations. Rouhani’s objective was to deprive the forces opposing efforts to forge a new nuclear deal of a pretext or opportunity to spoil the talks.
Under Raisi, it is likely that Iran will resume missile tests and actively work to develop its ballistic missile program and ensure that this and its regional expansionism are non-negotiable and separate from its nuclear program.
The region is now bracing itself for more misconduct by the IRGC, whether through intensifying attacks against Western assets in Iraq and Syria, targeting oil tankers and commercial vessels in international corridors or by inciting proxies to launch more attacks against countries neighboring its spheres of influence.
These actions, in turn, will lead to more Iranian involvement in regional crises as well as intensifying its conflict with Israel, and escalating conflict with regional and world powers opposed to Iran’s regional influence and its missile program. They will also reduce Iran’s room for maneuver in negotiations with the West over the outstanding issues, possibly overshadowing the entire Iranian situation both domestically and overseas.
On balance, the international community, especially the US, must establish genuine and effective red lines and deter Iran immediately when it crosses them. This is essential because Iran is adept at operating in the gray zone and construes any complacency through failure to respond to its provocations as indications of weakness and indifference. In such circumstances, it will continue to escalate, damaging not only regional stability but also global energy trade, the security of commercial shipping and oil prices worldwide.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami