James M. Dorsey
Tensions in the Gulf may have been dialled back months after the United States’ (US) killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani brought the region to the brink of war. However, the building blocks for a renewed crisis not only remain in place but have been reinforced. Iran, with hardliners emerging strengthened from parliamentary elections, is committed to a strategy that sees escalating asymmetric warfare as the straw that will break the camel’s back and force the ... more
James M. Dorsey
Tensions in the Gulf may have been dialled back months after the United States’ (US) killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani brought the region to the brink of war. However, the building blocks for a renewed crisis not only remain in place but have been reinforced. Iran, with hardliners emerging strengthened from parliamentary elections, is committed to a strategy that sees escalating asymmetric warfare as the straw that will break the camel’s back and force the parties back to the negotiating table. It is a risky gamble that could easily spin out of control.
Writing on the wall
The writing was on the wall. Convinced it had deterred Iran with the killing of General Qassim Soleimani, its most powerful military commander, in the first days of January 2020, the Trump administration misread the smoke signals emerging from Tehran.
Rather than backing off, Iran has stuck to its pattern throughout 2019 of allowing proxies to attack US and Saudi targets, as part of its strategy of gradually escalating tensions in a bid to force a return to negotiations based on the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Targets in February 2020 included the US embassy in Baghdad as well as the Saudi capital Riyadh. The choice of targets was significant. Missiles fired at the embassy were the 19th attack since last October on either the diplomatic facility or the approximately 5,200 US troops currently stationed in Iraq. It was a December 2019 siege of the embassy by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that prompted US President Donald Trump to assassinate Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s use of a regional proxy network in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as part of its defense strategy.
As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February paid his first visit to Saudi Arabia since the Soleimani killing, the kingdom’s air defense forces said they had shot down ballistic missiles launched by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The air force said the missiles had targeted civilian neighbourhoods in Riyadh.
The suggestion that Iran had upgraded its support for the Houthis by giving them ballistic missiles and with the rebels targeting Riyadh, Iran hoped to kill two birds with one stone: force the US to choose between retaliating or appear unwilling to come to the defence of its allies in the Gulf and persuade Saudi Arabia that its interests would be best served by talking directly to Tehran.
More fundamentally, the attacks in the first two months of 2020 indicate that Iran was neither deterred by the killing of Soleimani, nor did it believe that the assassination had brought the US and Iran close enough to a war to persuade Washington that it needed to negotiate or wage all-out war, something both countries are determined to avoid.
The Iranian game is one of high-stakes poker that risks getting out of the control of either protagonist given that Iran has influence but no absolute grip on its proxies and the danger of black swans as was evident in Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people.
From Strategic Patience to Gradual Escalation
If the first two months of this year are anything to go by, Iran and the Trump Administration have reverted to the pattern of the months that preceded an attack in December 2019 on a US facility in Iraq that killed an American contractor, the embassy siege and the US response with the killing of Soleimani.
In those months, President Trump exercised in military terms the kind of strategic patience that Iran adopted in the first 18 months after the US withdrew in 2018 from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and imposed its economic sanctions. In mid-2019, Iran switched its posture of strategic patience to one of calibrated escalation after Europe, Russia and China proved either unwilling or incapable of salvaging the nuclear accord in a way that Iran would be at least partially compensated for the severe domestic impact of the economic sanctions.
Trump had refrained from responding militarily to numerous attacks, including last year’s Iranian downing of a US drone, attacks on tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and two key Saudi oil facilities. Those attacks grabbed the most international attention but were, according to US officials, only the tip of the iceberg. The officials said there had been some 90 attacks on US targets in Iraq since May 2019 carried out by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, including Katab Hezbollah, whose leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Soleimani.
The attacks were intended not only to force the US to escalate tensions by provoking a military response in the hope that it would lead to a return to the negotiating table, but also to facilitate an environment conducive to a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government and growing public pressure. Notes Michael Eisenstadt, an expert on military and strategy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP): “The nearly eight months in which the US did not respond forcefully to a series of military provocations and attacks almost certainly contributed to the increasingly assertive and audacious actions by Iran and its proxies.” 
The danger of a reversal to a pattern of Iranian provocations and US restraint is multi-fold. It not only reinforces perceptions that the US is no longer a fully reliable ally that will come to the defense of its partners no matter what. It also suggests that the US could walk into an Iranian response with an unexpected response that would amount to an overreaction as was the case with the killing of Soleimani.
Iran may not have expected the Trump administration to target a key government official, but was likely deterred by the Soleimani killing at best for a matter of weeks partly because it wanted to see if it created an opening for negotiations. It had also been waylaid by the aftermath of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner. Iran clearly believes that one round of getting to the brink of all-out war failed to do the trick and it has, for all practical matters, put the downing behind it.
The potential for escalation, Trump’s strategic patience notwithstanding, is embedded not only in Iran’s strategy but also the US administration’s declared policy of seeking to contain and confront Iran even if that is primarily anchored in its maximum sanctions-driven pressure campaign. The risk of escalated Iranian asymmetric warfare that increases pressure on the Trump administration to respond was boosted by the February 2020 Iranian parliamentary election, the first since the US launched its maximum pressure campaign, that gave conservative hardliners a majority.
Much of the current assessment of the risk of a renewed escalation of US-Iranian tension focuses on Iraq and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It largely overlooks Iranian opportunities to strike in other theatres, prominent among which is Afghanistan, a war-torn nation with a significant US military presence on the Islamic republic’s border that Iran has long seen as threatening.
In a twist of irony, the removal of Soleimani as commander of the Al Quds force, the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, brought to the forefront a successor, General Esmail Qaani, whose main focus has for three decades been Afghanistan, where he built close ties to various factions of the Taliban, and members of the Afghan political elite and created battalions of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites that fought in Syria. His elevation raises the prospect of Afghanistan becoming an additional staging post for the Al Quds’ future operations.
Iran’s ability to enhance its military capabilities despite the US sanctions, boosts the risk of escalation in the event of a US response. In February, the US Navy discovered that Iran had developed a new anti-aircraft missile capable of downing American military helicopters, including the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey. The missiles were found on two vessels ferrying arms, reportedly to the Houthis, that were intercepted by the Navy.
To Destabilize Or Not?
Complicating risk calculations is the fact that the US and Saudi Arabia have waxed hot and cold on covert operations to support militants in and outside of Iran that seek either a toppling of the regime in Iran; greater autonomy for an ethnic minority like Iranian Arabs, Kurds or Azeris; or in some cases secession.
The kingdom and the US, already prior to the launch of the maximum pressure campaign, toyed with various militant groups, including the Albania-based Mujahedeen-e-Khalq as well as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) and Baloch nationalists and religious groups that have claimed responsibility for various attacks on Iranian targets in recent years.
Suspected US and Saudi encouragement of militant attacks in Iran appears to have waned in recent months but could well bounce back despite a breakdown in indirect contacts between the kingdom and Iran in the wake of the Soleimani killing.
Soleimani was killed immediately after arriving at Baghdad airport carrying an Iranian response to a Saudi message that had been conveyed by the Iraqi government as a mediator. Despite the breakdown, Iran sees its strategy of gradual escalation as having produced results by driving wedges into the US-Saudi-UAE front against the Islamic republic.
The driver underlying the initial Saudi-Iranian contacts remains: a sense of vulnerability as a result of last year’s Iranian-inspired attacks on tankers off the coast of the Emirates and on key Saudi oil facilities, coupled with nagging doubts about US reliability. As a result, the UAE, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, has already cautiously found some common ground with Iran, sending a coast guard delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security.
If that sense of vulnerability can be maintained, for example through attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis, the likelihood is that a proposal put forward by Russia for embedding the unilateral US defense umbrella into a more multilateral regional security arrangement that would involve some sort of non-aggression understanding, will gain traction.
A Multilateral Regional Security Arrangement?
Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that over the past decade have sought to rollback or co-opt popular revolts that have swept the Middle East and North Africa, are certain to buy into the sub-text of the Russian security proposal.
“Russia is seeking stability which includes preventing colour revolutions,” said Maxim Grigoryev, director of the Moscow-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy, using the term employed to describe popular revolts in countries that once were part of the Soviet Union. Echoing Kremlin policy, Grigoryev said Syria was “a model of stabilising a regime and countering terrorism.”
The subtext is important even if Gulf states long opposed Russian intervention in Syria that enabled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to gain the upper hand in a nine-year-old brutal civil war. Said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz: “While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria .” 
Like Russia, China sees a broadening of security arrangements that would embed, rather than replace, the US defense umbrella as a way to reduce regional tensions. China also believes that a multilateral arrangement would allow it to continue steering clear of being sucked into conflicts and disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
A multilateral arrangement in which the US would remain the key military player would therefore fit the pattern of China’s gradual projection beyond its borders of its growing military power. The “sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working… By escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus,” said Eldar Mamedov, an advisor to the social-democrats in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Misreading the tea leaves
A US misreading of the tea leaves contributed to Iranian successes as well as the hardline victory in the February 2020 parliamentary election. The election result spotlighted the US’ repeated shooting of an own goal by adopting policies that undermine its own long-standing aim of persuading Iran to moderate its policies and tone down its revolutionary rhetoric.
Rather than provide incentives, like with the 2015 nuclear accord, US policy has more often than not reinforced perceptions in Tehran that the US’ real goal was regime change. Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton reinforced those perceptions in response to Soleimani’s killing, when he tweeted: “Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”
US policy over the decades has prompted Iran to adopt a defense and security policy that compensated for the Islamic republic’s intrinsic weakness by emphasising the very things the US has long wanted to see changed. These include Iran’s successful use of proxies across the Middle East and its development of a ballistic missile and small speedboat capability in the absence of either an air force or a navy worth mentioning.
Ultimately, the strengthening of Iranian hardliners not only undermines US policy goals but also risks putting the US in difficult, if not impossible, and at times humiliating positions, and sucking it into a conflict for which it is ill-equipped, in terms of fighting an opponent who relies on non-conventional warfare. Said political anthropologist Negar Razavi: “The US foreign policy establishment has collectively created a culture of expert impunity when it comes to Iran, which has contributed in no small part to the unstable and dangerous policy conditions we see under Trump today.”
The spectre of violence, if not all-out war, looms large in the Gulf even if the US and Iran had backed away from military confrontation in early January 2020. If anything, the battle lines have hardened with hardliners having emerged victorious in Iran’s parliamentary election and the Trump administration pursuing its sanctions-driven maximum pressure campaign that aims to contain and confront the Islamic republic. Continued Iranian provocations designed to bring the parties to the brink with negotiations as the only alternative to war amount to a risky strategy that could produce situations that spin out of control. As a result, Iran and the US are playing a high-stakes poker game to see who blinks first. The gamble is magnified by the fact that neither party believes that the political price of compromise is lower than the devastating price of war.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute
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