Iran's bluster fails to hide its inner conflict

Tehran does not face any strategic threat despite its entanglements in the affairs of Arab countries

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

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Published: Tue 21 May 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 May 2019, 9:52 PM

Exactly one year ago, when US President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers and chose to reinstate sanctions in an effort to force Tehran back to the negotiating table, Western media liberals were quick to pass their verdict. The decision by the US president was not only unjustified, the argument went, the exercise in coercive diplomacy would have exactly zero effect on Iran's behaviour.
Now that the Iranian regime is showing clear signs of an implosion in slow motion, one would think the media liberals and political pundits in question would introspect about their motives and sign up for bias training and awareness programmes. Instead they are busy conjuring up comparisons between the escalating tensions in the Gulf and the run-up to the joint US-British invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
Every attempt by Iran's 'deep state' to drag its prosperous and stable Arab Gulf neighbours into a ruinous war is being depicted by said media liberals as something akin to a false-flag operation by Trump in cahoots with his scheming allies. As a token of evenhandedness, the comments of a few blunt and no-nonsense Arab commentators are being incorporated into their reports, which as usual blur the line between news and personal views.
Similarly, the discreet remarks of the British deputy commander of the anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq and Syria, who presumably has a clear idea of the risks his soldiers run on a daily basis as long as they are deployed in the sectarian tinderbox, have been twisted and turned into definitive evidence of Iran's strategic innocence vis-a-vis the bad faith of its American, Arab and Israeli adversaries.
Little consideration has been given to the fact that, unlike his American counterparts, Major-General Robert Ghika does not have the undivided attention of his government - which has been preoccupied for months with the potential consequences of Britain's expected withdrawal from the European Union - and is therefore entitled to believe that caution is preferable to rash bravery when speaking publicly about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxy armies.
Even less consideration has been given by elite Western liberal media outlets to the likelihood of a connection between the escalating US-Iran tensions and the sudden acts of sabotage that targeted four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, near the UAE's Fujairah coast and the drone attacks on two Saudi Aramco's oil-pumping stations claimed by Yemen's Houthi militia.
Lost in the fog of the phony war between the US and Iran is the growing desperation of the Iranian regime. A recent reshuffle of the top brass of the IRGC saw the appointment of a new commander, Hossein Salami, who is known to be a favourite of Qassem Soleimani, the chief commander of the IRGC's elite Quds Force, the architect of Iran's regional grand strategy and a trusted ally of Iran's octogenarian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The appointment of new IRGC commanders was nothing if not a signal of a further closing of ranks by the conservative ideologues who control the key levers of power while Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif maintain a useful facade of moderation. Whether there is any daylight between Rouhani's cabinet and Khamenei's inner circle, the fact of the matter is that Iran neither needs nor can afford to be the Middle East's pre-eminent imperial power.
The extremists of Daesh who posed an existential threat to the post-Saddam, Iran-aligned Iraqi state have been defeated in their last strongholds. Another Iran ally, Syria's Bashar Al Assad, is once again safely ensconced in his presidential palace, although his grip on power remains shaky and his return to the Arab fold a distant dream.
Furthermore, Iran does not face any strategic threat from its Arab adversaries despite its entanglements in the affairs of a number of Arab countries. With regard to its ongoing low-intensity conflict with Israel, no Israeli leader has so far showed an appetite for a direct confrontation despite repeated clashes with Tehran's proxies.
As for the mismatch between Iran's desire for regional domination and its economic means, one need look no further than an Associated Press report from Tehran: "Battered by US sanctions and its depreciating rial currency, Iran's 80 million people struggle to buy meat, medicine and other staples of daily life. ... for Iran's youth ... the situation now feels more akin to a funeral. Many openly discuss their options to obtain a visa - any visa - to go abroad."
It is hard to tell if the visible success of Trump's coercive diplomacy will further empower or weaken Iran's hardliners, who remain firmly in the driving seat. If the acts of sabotage in the Gulf are any message, it is one of defiance and belligerence.
Yet, for all we know, the bluster and bombast is a smokescreen that hides the stark reality of a regime in the midst of a meltdown. Put bluntly, what Western media liberals and like-minded policy wonks see as war-mongering by Republican hawks, the silent majority of Iranians probably view as their best chance of taking back their country after 40 wasted years.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East

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