No sooner had President Biden's appeasement squad been deployed than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric heading Iran's regime, ended almost four years of relative self-restraint by trying to revive the embers of several conflicts into blazing flames. Pictured: Iran's "Supreme Guide," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Image source: khameni.ir/Wikimedia Commons)
Last February, when the new Biden administration launched its promised bid for a revival of the Obama "nuclear deal" with the Islamic Republic, apologists described it as an attempt at preventing another Middle Eastern war. This echoed the old mantra that in dealing with the Khomeinist regime, the choice is between appeasement and full-scale war.
Adepts of that mantra have failed to understand that in dealing with the mullahs it is appeasement that encourages war.
Thus, no sooner had President Biden's appeasement squad been deployed than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric heading the Khomeinist regime, ended almost four years of relative self-restraint by trying to revive the embers of several conflicts into blazing flames.
He started with Yemen, where he had withdrawn his embassy, military mission and religious propagandists, transferring them to Oman on a "temporary basis", by sending one of his generals as the new ambassador with the mission to upgrade the Houthis' ramshackle war machine. The next move was to speed up the supply of new rockets and missiles to his Hezbollah units in Lebanon. That was followed by a massive cash handout to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza in exchange for launching a new round of missile and rockets attacks on Israel. In between he also ordered a military build upon Iran's borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia, to signal the end of the low profile he had been forced to adopt during the Trump administration.
But that was not all. Believing that the new US administration may help him solve his cash flow problem, the ayatollah re-wrote the official national budget, prepared by outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, to dramatically increase his military's share. The revised budget, rushed through the ersatz parliament like a knife in butter, includes a 62 percent raise in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' share. The Quds (Jerusalem) Force, which is in charge of exporting revolution and keeping the pot boiling in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, sees its budget increased by almost 40 percent. Some estimates put the total increase of Iran's military budget since 2019 at around 150 percent.
The message going to surrogates in the region and beyond is that Tehran expects to be able to end the budget cuts it had been forced to introduce during the Trump tenure as the US, with a wink and a nod, allows some allies, notably South Korea and Japan, to release part of the money they owe for oil imports.
In theological terms, Khamenei and his associates see the expected deal with Biden as "relief after constraint" which is promised to believers who go through a period of suffering without losing faith.
The ayatollah seems determined to use this "window of opportunity" for changing gears in domestic politics also. The seven-man list of "approved candidates" he has launched for the forthcoming presidential election shows that he intends to install a war cabinet of radicals totally loyal to his person.
Does all that mean that the "Supreme Guide" is preparing for war?
Not all, if by war we mean a full-scale classical clash of military forces on land, in air and at sea. Khamenei knows that his disorganized military, divided into countless corps and commands with conflicting cultures and interests and often saddled with antiquarian materiel, is in no position to fight a classical war against a serious enemy. None of his 13 highest ranking generals, all at retirement age and deeply involved in their own business activities, has the profile of a putative conqueror.
Khamenei implicitly admits that by repeating his "neither compromise, nor war" slogan.
As far as diplomacy is concerned, he will play the game that Tehran started almost 30 years ago, negotiating accords on the "nuclear issue". The new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, says the aim is to persuade Tehran to reduce its nuclear activities so that it is always no less than a year away from building a bomb. Khamenei, who has no intention of building a bomb at this time, is ready to offer the Americans the candy that they crave.
Last month he said: If we decide to build the bomb, neither they (the Biden team) nor those greater than them could stop us!
Using the "nuclear deal", a non-sequitur worthy of the Man of the Mancha, as a diversion the ayatollah hopes to get the sanctions lifted so that he can pursue his kind of war with greater vigor.
His kind of war is labelled in many different ways: proxy, asymmetric, low-intensity, low-cost, cottage industry war. Aware that few Iranians are prepared to fight his kind of war, he pursues it through surrogates and mercenaries recruited in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. The use of mercenaries in such wars has a long history. The Abbasid Caliphs used the Turkish Mameluke slaves and the Ottomans had the Bashi-Bazouks while the Safavids used the Qizil-Bash and the Kurdish Peshmerga. The British in India employed the Nepalese Gurkha (Tomb-seekers) and the French did their dirty work through Alawite recruits known as "auxiliaires" or " helpers".
According to best estimates, the Islamic Republic has spent around $20 billion in its various low-cost wars since 2000, a relatively modest sum compared to the huge cost of a full-scale war. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif, the regime needs a minimum of $60 billion a year to cover its basic costs and survive while continuing its decades-long campaign to destabilize the Middle East in the hope of what Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Khamenei, describes as "the inevitable tsunami of Islamic revolution" that would establish a new base for the eventual conquest of the world by "faith and justice" by the Iranian-led Resistance Front.
Blinken talks of his hopes for a "breakthrough" in the currently stalled "nuclear" talks. Khamenei, too, wants a breakthrough based in a promise to enrich the uranium he does not want or need at a lower grade in exchange for the cash flow he does need to reactivate his momentarily interrupted special kind of war against the US and its regional allies, indeed against what is often known as " the world order".
Fear of an illusory war may lead to a deal which would allow a real war to continue behind the façade of an illusory peace.
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.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.