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How new US stance on Iran is resonating in Tehran

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It's hardly surprising that US ultimatums directed at Iran have been answered in kind, with Iranians saying they will not be intimidated into constraining their regional ambitions. But listen closely, and you'll also hear more pragmatic voices.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with government officials in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. Iran's supreme leader is criticizing the US over its hard-line stance toward the country since President Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal reached between Iran and Western powers.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP

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New US demands that Iran reduce its dominant influence in the Middle East could not have been more explicit – nor more clearly underscored Iran’s status as a regional superpower capable of shaping events on the ground like no other local actor.

“No more cost-free expansions of Iranian power. No more,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed this week. “Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”

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Iranian leaders responded with predictable defiance and counter-bluster, pointing out decades of failure by US leaders to undermine the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

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“The rage of the US and its allies [as] the losers on the battlefield is understandable,” said Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. “US efforts aimed at limiting Iran’s strength have been futile and clearly indicate Iran’s power.” 

Washington’s threat of “unprecedented financial pressure” is not likely to change Iran’s strategic calculations, analysts say. Rather, it may backfire, prompting Iran instead to double-down in the belief that it needs to enhance deterrence against new dangers – especially after President Trump withdrew the US this month from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

"Pressure and sanctions actually incentivize Iran to increase its influence in the region and demonstrate that it is a formidable regional power that has to be reckoned with,” says Payam Mohseni, director of the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For Iran, one way of assessing its regional standing is how it measures up against Israel, its avowed enemy and a key US ally. Another is the performance of its allies and proxies, and its ability to help them.

“Iran is not looking for a war with Israel since its conventional military capabilities are limited in such a direct conflict and it would be quite costly,” says Mr. Mohseni. But an expected victory for an Iranian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in Syria’s civil war, which was made possible by critical help from Iranian advisers, their Shiite militia proxies, and Russian air power, “would mean that Iran has retained its deterrent capabilities against Israel,” he says.

Mr. Pompeo promised that America will “crush” Iranian proxies and impose the “strongest sanctions in history,” in order to block Iran’s “quest for a regional hegemony” and to counter “destabilizing activities” that he said threaten the US and allies like Israel.

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Pompeo’s 12 demands require Iran to dismantle the self-styled “axis of resistance” it leads to confront the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia; withdraw forces and advisers from Syria and Iraq; cut support for proxy forces from Lebanon to Yemen; and neuter its missile program.

Iranian officials have been uniform in their derision of the new US strategy.

“Iran’s missile and defensive capabilities are essential components of our deterrence,” Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami said Wednesday. “If our enemies want to increase the pressure on us, our determination to bolster our defensive capabilities will only grow.”

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami listens during the Conference on International Security in Moscow, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. Despite the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria, he said, the region remains unstable.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Iran experts say tension is exacerbated by the wide gap between how Iran views its use of hard and soft power across the Middle East – largely as defensive, to deter any attack that might jeopardize survival of the regime – compared with how the US and Israel view Iran’s rise, such that it now has more influence than any regional power in the past half century.

For example, where the White House and Israel see Iranian encroachment up to Israel’s borders on two fronts, in Syria and Lebanon, as an offensive menace that could trigger a war, Iran sees itself creating a deterrent to attack by the far stronger Israeli and US conventional forces.

“Iran is trying to create an effective deterrent in Syria and Lebanon,” says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“It is not a projection of power. It is not expansionism…. If we lose the deterrent that we have against Israel, that would very much jeopardize our security,” says Mr. Hadian, adding that he expects little change in Iran’s Middle East policies.

“The perception is that the US is looking for regime change…. Decisions are going to be made on the security considerations of Iran, not what Trump would say or do,” says Hadian.

Hard-liners in Iran think “exactly the same way that Trump would think, [that] you have to stay strong, we have to challenge the US wherever we can, we have to make an effective deterrence against the US, and then the US strategic calculus would be different,” he adds.

Ehud Yaari, an Israeli strategist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in a recent analysis in The American Interest that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is “determined to transform Syria into a platform for a future war against Israel,” but that “Iran is in no hurry to have a confrontation.” Its leaders, he adds, “seem to have abandoned for the moment their earlier plans to deploy Hezbollah and other militias close to the Golan frontier” due to a series of Israeli airstrikes.

Yet a wider conflict is “almost inevitable,” Mr. Yaari writes. For Israel, Iran’s alliances and infrastructure in Syria represent  “a major strategic failure with far reaching implications,” he says. “Israel is faced not only with a preserved Assad regime – a vital ally to Iran and Hezbollah – but also with the emergence of Iranian military power next door."

The US demands are a familiar wish list that Iranian leaders have heard from successive presidential teams. But never before has Iran been in such a position of influence, hard-won on the back of the years-long anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria, and the apparent retreat of US leadership during the Obama era.

But using force to balance competing threat perceptions and create red lines is a dangerous game. In February, for example, Iran sent an armed drone flying into Israel, which shot it down, but then Israel, in a strike on Iranian positions in Syria, lost one of its own F-16 jet fighters to a fusillade of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, prompting a further Israeli response that damaged Syrian air defenses.

Iran later vowed revenge for a mid-April Israeli air strike against an Iranian drone unit at the T4 base inside Syria, which killed seven Iranians from the IRGC.

Two weeks ago, Israel accused Iran of firing 20 missiles toward Israeli held territory on the Golan Heights – this week it updated that number to 32 – which did little reported damage since only four reportedly made it across the border and were shot down by Israel missile defense systems. That prompted a wave of Israeli airstrikes against 20 Iranian targets in Syria, which Israeli Air Force commanders say resulted in 100 Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired at Israeli planes, and the subsequent destruction of five Syrian missile batteries. Israeli officials initially said the airstrikes hit 50 targets and destroyed a “substantial” portion of Iran’s military infrastructure in the country.

Iran denied any significant losses, and neither side has presented much evidence about the incident.  But rhetoric in the aftermath pointed to the ever-present risk of escalation.

Iran would “step up its missile capabilities day by day so that Israel, this occupying regime, will become sleepless and the nightmare will haunt it that if it does anything foolish, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground,” said the hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, as he led Friday prayers in Tehran shortly after the Israeli strike.

But away from the bombast, other voices are also being heard.

To minimize the risk of escalation, argues one Israeli analyst, Israel may have to curtail its own aims regarding Iran’s presence in Syria.

“Israel’s stated goal of ‘denying Iran any and all military entrenchment in Syria’ is unachievable,” says Eran Etzion, a former member of Israel’s National Security Council and head of the Forum of Strategic Dialogue in Tel Aviv, in an analysis published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Israel will have to deploy a “complex array of overt and covert military capabilities [and] smart diplomacy,” to meet the challenge, writes Mr. Etzion, or it “risks uncontrolled escalation into the kind of inter-state war unseen in the Middle East since 1973.”

Iran also must balance its aims and threat perceptions to avoid war, says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, in a parallel analysis published by ECFR.

“Tehran is keen to avoid major escalation with the Israelis and careful about establishing military bases in the south of [Syria]” close to Israel, writes Mr. Barzegar. “Such escalation would challenge Iran’s main justification for its presence in Syria: battling terrorist groups. Instead, Iran is confident that it can maintain a balance of power using asymmetric means,” such as relying on allied forces like Hezbollah and unconventional tactics that don’t result in face-to-face showdowns.