Iran’s domestic woes might accelerate international confrontation

Iran’s domestic woes might accelerate international confrontation

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It is now nearly three months since protests broke out in Iran following the death of a young woman in police custody, and protesters in the streets are holding their ground despite the regime’s brutality. The spontaneous and unprecedented protests indicate not only accumulated frustration and anger toward the regime in Tehran, but also a belief that this could be a turning point in relations between the Iranian people and their rulers, and possibly the end of that regime.
The current domestic upheaval is taking place concurrently with a stalemate in attempts to revive the nuclear deal, while clandestine — sometimes not so clandestine — hostilities are escalating between Iran and its enemies, notably Israel. One of the possible consequences of these volatile conditions is that, should the anti-regime movement persist and gain further momentum, Iran’s leadership might attempt to divert attention by pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, which would also provide an excuse to tighten the screw on dissent at home with more brutality.
History provides many examples of political leaders who, when faced with domestic challenges to their authority, decide to initiate external conflict and exaggerate threats from state and nonstate actors in what is known as “diversionary conflict” to enhance their chances of survival. Such attempted distractions are driven either by the hope of achieving a rally-round-the-flag effect, which also gives an opportunity to suppress any opposition, or with the aim of providing an opportunity for the leadership to prove its competence and hence restore domestic support.
The regime in Tehran has repeatedly employed this survival strategy, as it enjoys very little support among its own people; hence, its aggressive actions in Yemen, its support for the murderous regime in Syria, its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its conflict with Israel all serve to justify its oppressive policies at home in its quest to maintain its hold on power.
One sign of this ramping up of aggression is that, despite good progress in negotiations earlier this year, there is increasing evidence that Tehran is not inclined to alter its behavior in order to secure the revival of a nuclear deal that the US would once more be party to and would lead to the removal of sanctions. By now, hardly anyone believes a deal is possible. Instead, the West, led by the US, has shifted its focus to supporting the Iranian people and piling the pressure on the regime to stop suppressing the rights of its own people.
It might be wishful thinking, naive, even premature, but it reflects a perception in the West that, for the first time since the 1979 revolution, there are forces within Iran that are willing and able to bring down the current regime, or at least extract considerable concessions from its much-weakened leadership. Moreover, Tehran is doing very little to help its cause by supplying deadly drones to Russia and therefore aligning itself with Moscow’s brutality in Ukraine and finding itself once again on the wrong side of history.
This general deterioration of the situation in Iran and its relations with the world at large also feeds into its relations with Israel, which are expected to worsen with the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office at the head of the most right-wing coalition government in the country’s history. This development brings a tangible risk of the friction between the two countries expanding and intensifying, with increased attacks on each other’s interests.

The general deterioration of the situation in Iran and its relations with the world at large also feeds into its relations with Israel.

Last month’s drone attack on an Israeli-owned oil tanker in the Arabian Gulf did not cause any loss of life or much damage, but it signaled Iran’s frustration with Israel’s ongoing strikes on weapons convoys sent from Iran to Hezbollah and on other Iranian targets in Syria and elsewhere. The attack on the tanker seemed to be in retaliation to a deadly Israeli strike on a convoy carrying fuel across the Iraqi border into Syria as part of the “war between the wars” that Israel has waged against Iran and its regional allies for years in its bid to stop Tehran’s aggression and its drive to regional hegemony.
Moreover, Iran’s attacks on tankers, particularly during a severe energy crisis, could easily transform bilateral hostilities into a wider confrontation with the West, especially if it affects the latter’s war effort against Russia.
Israeli strategists are still baffled over Iran’s nuclear military intentions. It is generally assumed that it is, by now, a nuclear threshold country or at least very close to it. Last month, Israel’s military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva assessed that Iran “toys” with uranium enrichment to 90 percent — a level considered to be weapons-grade. Israel is certain about Iran’s technological ability to achieve nuclear breakthrough, but less so about whether its leaders are interested in crossing this international red line in a move that would doubtless lead to more sanctions and other forms of pressure from the international community, and most definitely from Israel.
According to the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran has also been planning a massive expansion of its enrichment capacity by enriching uranium to 60 percent at a second plant, a level of enrichment which is regarded as not far away from weapons-grade. And some experts have already warned that Iran has enough 60 percent-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
In an interview last week, Netanyahu declared that his No. 1 priority was “to prevent Iran from annihilating us.” This will set the tone for the duration of the incoming Israeli government and, between the actual Iranian threat and Netanyahu’s own need to divert attention from his corruption trial, it will remain the joker in his pack as he presents himself as the defender of Israel against complete destruction by Iran.
Without diminishing the need to restrain and contain Iran’s regional adventurism, both nuclear and conventional, the reality of Iran and Israel soon being governed by leaderships that are rigid in their thinking and see their enmity in absolute terms is a danger to stability in the region. This will require the more stable regional and other international powers to ensure that this situation does not escalate into a full-blown war that drags in the entire Middle East.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg


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