The war of words that Washington and Tehran have been waging these past few weeks swings back and forth between messages intended to calm and threats of escalation. One minute, both sides declare their desire to avoid war and say they are certain war won’t break out; the next, they announce their willingness to enter a full-scale military conflict. In the past 24 hours, the verbal poundings by both capitals have moved up a notch.
U.S. President Donald Trump said that “it will be the official end of Iran” if the Islamic Republic dared attack American interests in the region, whereas Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that America was playing a “dangerous game” by concentrating forces in the Persian Gulf and said that “today’s situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only.”
Beyond that, Rouhani effectively rejected Trump’s call for Iran to hold dialogue with the United States and announced that his country would not do so until Washington removed the sanctions against it, reversed its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and give Iran the “respect it deserves.”
But it’s not only the verbal sparring that could light up the Persian Gulf; it’s also the series of hostile actions Iran has launched over the past few days. These began with an attack on an oil carrier off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, went on to armed drone strikes on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and included Katyusha rocket fire towards the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
In every case, the Iranians took care to carry out the attacks via loyal proxies so the incidents couldn’t be traced directly to Tehran. It would appear that these actions can’t be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to deter the United States from a military conflict with Iran, while making it clear that if a military conflict did ensue, not only American forces in the Gulf, but also Washington’s regional allies would be forced to pay a heavy price.
Israel is trying to refrain from public comment on the tension between the United States and Iran, but is aware that should a military conflict erupt in the Persian Gulf, Israel will be involved whether it wants to be or not. There are reliable reports about short-range ballistic missiles Iran has supplied to militias in Iraq that are loyal to Tehran, which can be fired 700 kilometers (450 miles) and have the potential to strike both Saudi Arabia and Israel if launched from Iranian Quds Force sites in western Iraq.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in a week is scheduled to host an Arab summit in Riyadh where he plans to denounce the Iranian provocations, holds the opinion that if the United States does not carry out limited strikes against Iran, Tehran won’t stop and will even try, in secret, to enrich uranium to a degree that will allow it to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
But the White House is still hoping that despite their recalcitrant statements, the Iranians will come to their senses and, in light of harsher sanctions and a deteriorating economy, agree to return to the negotiating table. Mediators from Oman and Iraq entered the picture on Tuesday in an attempt to defuse the situation.
This column first appeared on Israel Hayom.