Iran's mullahs have threatened "dire consequences" if the US tries to stop its oil tankers from reaching Venezuela. Since the Islamic Republic lacks the naval power to escort the tankers right down to Venezuelan ports, its retaliation may come in the form of a seizure of one or more US oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Pictured: Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on July 21, 2019, after Iran seized it and brought it to the port city of Bandar Abbas. (Photo by Hasan Shirvani/AFP via Getty Images)
Is a military clash between the United States and Iran inevitable? Since January, when the Americans assassinated Tehran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, policy circles in major capitals have grappled with the question without reaching a consensus.
At the time of this writing, the question is bouncing back as Iranian tankers carrying oil to Venezuela risk running into an American cordon designed to keep them away.
The mullahs have threatened "dire consequences" if the US does try to stop the tankers. Since the Islamic Republic lacks the naval power to escort the tankers right down to Venezuelan ports, the "dire consequences" would not come in the form of a naval battle in the Caribbean. Instead, as the daily Kayhan, expressing "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei's views, said in an editorial Monday, retaliation may come in the form of a seizure of one or more US oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Another option is targeting all oil tankers in the waterway for a fixed period, as Iran did in 1988.
Heshmat-Allah Falahat Pisheh, a former chairman of the National Security Committee in the Islamic Majlis, Iran's ersatz parliament, argues that a clash is inevitable because the conflict between Tehran and Washington is "of a unique nature" that leaves no space for retreat by either side or an attempt at mediation by a third party. Thus, when tension reaches a certain point, the only way to relieve it is blowing up the top of the kettle.
Iranian sociologist Sa'id Mo'ayedfar advances a similar argument from a different angle. He claims the Khomeinist regime is aware that it is approaching its sell-by date and would do anything to delay the inevitable a bit longer. And that "anything" could include a short and sharp military clash with the US that could arouse Iranian patriotic feelings but leave the regime in place with a new veneer of legitimacy.
An analysis in FARS, a news-site of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also evokes the possibility of a clash by claiming that the US is too weak and too affected by the coronavirus crisis to look for a long war with the Islamic Republic. It quotes Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, as saying that "people are starving all over America" and, thus, unwilling to be dragged into a foreign war. The site also quotes Barbara Slavin, described by Iranian media as a "leading American intellectual", saying that Tehran has already defeated President Trump's "maximum pressure" policy and thus, need not offer any concessions for fear of a military clash.
For weeks, Tehran media have thrown hints about an "October surprise" to derail Trump's second term election bid.
Despite all that, guess is that, barring an accident, there is going to be no military clash, not forgetting that Tehran's military, as shown with the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet with three missiles, and the recent "friendly fire" tragedy in the Gulf of Oman, is accident-prone.
There are three reasons for this. The first is that the highest concern of the Khomeinist system, like other ideological regimes, is self-preservation.
No normal government would have signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty that Lenin ordered Trotsky to sign with the Germans, giving up almost all of Russia's European "possessions." Mao's Communist China swallowed the bitter pill of "normalization" with the American "paper tiger" after a drubbing at the hands of the Russians in the Wusuli River battle in 1969. Eight months later, Beijing started secret talks with Washington, with Iran and Pakistan as intermediaries. In 1991, fear of being targeted next forced Syria's President Hafez al-Assad to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Lenin's advice to his team in April 1918 about "hanging on for another 100 days no matter how" has been heard by many ideologues who may not be familiar with his story.
The second reason the mullahs will shy away from a military clash is that their regime is now at its weakest position in four decades. They may weather the economic storm triggered by the re-imposition of sanctions by freezing all development projects, raising prices of state-owned utilities, and selling the family silver at fire-sale prices. What they cannot cope with is a serious loss of legitimacy and the continued erosion of their support base.
The third reason why, the recent huffing and puffing notwithstanding, the mullahs may play their trump card, no pun intended, once again is that "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei now controls all levers of power as never before.
The trump card in question consists of the mullahs' tradition of surrendering at five minutes to midnight. Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the man who set up the regime, played the card every time his back was to the wall in 1980 and 1988.
Khamenei calls this "heroic flexibility" and has written extensively to give the tactic some theological mooring with references to Imam Hassan Ibn Ali.
Today, Khamenei no longer fears that his rivals within the ruling establishment may use normalization with the outside world, which cannot happen without some normalization with the US, as a weapon to their own advantage. Having carried out an extensive purge of the military, he has consolidated his position as the military's political face. On the clerical front, the mullahs who might have challenged him are either dead or too young to take him on openly. He has appointed his handpicked men to key positions of power and since the last Majlis election also has full control of an ersatz parliament which contained some unruly elements in the past.
Last week, the ayatollah called for the formation of a "young Hezbollahi government", serving notice that President Hassan Rouhani and his "New York Boys", now old and not Hezbollahi enough, are moving towards the exit.
Khamenei has compared his struggle with the American "Great Satan" with the Tom and Jerry conflicts in the word of Hollywood cartoons. On many occasions viewers think that the playful mouse is done for, only for him to dodge the cat and bounce back with a new trick.
Four decades of Tom & Jerry, Iranian-style, was made possible by the gullibility and impatience of Americans who always wanted quick results, took their wishes for reality, and allowed the mischievous/playful mouse to live another day for another adventure.
Will history repeat itself?
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.