Will President Donald Trump fall for the claim that as far as the Iran is concerned the only choice is between full-scale war and surrender to the mullahs' agenda? No one, perhaps not even Trump himself, knows the answer. Pictured: President Trump on September 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Will the attacks on Saudi oil installations last week upset the status quo that has taken shape in the past 17 months, that is to say, since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the "Iran nuke deal" concocted by Barack Obama?
The headline-grabbing sensationalism of the attacks, largely attributed to the Islamic Republic of Iran but denied by the mullahs, may suggest "yes" as an answer. A closer look, however, might suggest a more nuanced reply. It is likely that whoever planned the attacks was more interested in testing the waters, seeing how far it was possible to go in provocation without making a crushing response inevitable, rather than a serious attempt at upsetting the status quo.
However, first, let us see what we mean by the new status quo, which has replaced the one created by Obama in his final years in office.
Under the Obama status quo, Iran put large chunks of its economic, trade and even military policies under direct or indirect control of the so-called P5+1 group in exchange for a free hand to pursue its "exporting revolution" agenda in the Middle East and developing longer-range missiles for future extension of its influence in the region and beyond. The mullahs could swallow the humiliation of partial foreign tutelage because the Obama deal contained a sunset clause under which the restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic would lapse after five, 10, 15 or 25 years' time.
What Trump wants is a new "deal" in which restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic continue forever while halting Iran's missiles development project, not affected by the Obama "deal", is woven into the ensemble. Such a situation would allow the mullahs to prolong their rule but would make it harder to "export" revolution while making a mockery of their claim of creating "the new Islamic civilization" for humanity.
Tehran's refusal of the Trump "offer" created a new status quo in which the Islamic Republic retains its freedom of action, including mischief-making while suffering the consequences of re-imposed sanctions.
What the mullahs did not realize was that the new status quo came at no cost to the Americans, who could thus afford to prolong it as far as needed. All that Trump did was announce that anyone trading with the Islamic Republic could not trade with the US, and that the US would no longer allow the mullahs to use American global banking and trade facilities.
Has the Trump method succeeded? Tehran provides no clear answer.
Domestic propaganda and propaganda aimed at its clients in Arab countries pretend there has been no effect or, in some cases, that it has even made the Khomeinist movement stronger. When it comes to Western countries, the mullahs play the victim card, claiming that Trump has stopped milk for Iranian babies and stipends for pensioners in shanty towns around Tehran. Westerners sympathetic to the mullahs, largely because of a deep anti-Americanism, know that Western democracies are suckers for tales of victimhood and thus vulnerable to the tyranny of the underdog.
However, there is no doubt that the re-imposed sanctions, especially Iran's inability to sell its oil, is beginning to hurt.
Last spring President Hassan Rouhani claimed that his government had enough foreign currency reserves to cover all "basic costs" for at least 18 months, that is to say almost until the end of Trump's first presidential term. However, his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been going around demanding help to secure $60 billion a year to cover those same "basic costs."
In other words, the Islamic Republic can cope with the new Trump-imposed status but only for a short while. Tehran's aim, therefore, should be some modification of the same status quo.
Often the mullahs did so by pushing the tension with the US a notch higher and always obtained the results they wished for. In 1979, just months after the fall of the Shah, they feared that the Carter administration would make a deal with the provisional pro-American government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and exclude the mullahs and their communist allies from power.
They pushed the tension a notch higher by raiding the US Embassy in Tehran and seizing its diplomats as hostages. Carter reacted as the mullahs had expected, talking tough but doing nothing, while the global anti-American chorus cast the mullahs as victims of imperialism.
Similar tactics were used during the Reagan, Bush (Sr.) and Clinton administrations. Each time, the mullahs raised the tension, forcing the American "Great Satan" to face a stark choice between doing nothing and a full-scale war the American public would not endorse.
In every case, the tyranny of the underdog worked and the mullahs managed to continue crushing their opponents at home and fattening their cohorts abroad while casting themselves as champions of the downtrodden resisting the diktats of the "Great Satan." Pundits suggested that the Khomeinist regime should be granted indulgence because it was still coping with the consequences of the revolution that produced it. After all, every revolution has its Thermidor one day! Bill Clinton fell for that yarn more than others did when he told an audience in the World Economic Forum in Davos that he regarded the regime in Tehran as "closer to my way of thinking than almost any other in the world."
Will Trump fall for the claim that as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned the only choice is between full-scale war and surrender to the mullahs' agenda? No one, perhaps not even Trump himself, knows the answer. However, this is what "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei hopes for. That is why he is trying to keep tensions high to sustain the claim that Washington's current policy may lead to full-scale war. At the same time, however, he is carefully calibrating his provocations, not to trigger the war he is warning of.
Khamenei's best hope is for Trump to go for a pin-prick operation that would shake but not topple the Khomeinist regime while mobilizing Iranian and international opinion in its support as a victim, thus forcing the easing of sanctions that are beginning to break the bones of his regime.
Khamenei says he wants "neither negotiations nor war" while Trump claims that he is ready for both. That balancing act could preserve the current status quo that is clearly working in favor of the "Great Satan". In this new status quo, negotiation is impossible and war is unnecessary.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.