The slew of terrorist attacks perpetrated recently by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most recent being directed against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, are more proof of the pressure harsh U.S. sanctions are putting on Tehran. Washington is slowly strangling the Iranian economy, and the ayatollahs are finding it difficult to find a way out of the noose they feel tightening around their necks.
The Europeans, as they usually do, are expressing understanding of Tehran’s difficulties but not doing anything to help it. Whereas Russia and China, the ayatollah regime’s most important allies, are not known for handing out bonbons—and even if they wanted to help Iran, their economic ability to do so is limited.
The Iranians thought they could hold on until the 2020 U.S. elections, in the hope that if a new government were voted in, pressure from Washington would ease up. But the Iranian economy has collapsed faster than officials in Tehran thought it would, and the economic distress has led to increased civil protests within Iran. The budget hardships also forced Iran to slash the generous aid it provided to its various satellites throughout the Middle East, including Hezbollah and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his close associates, who supposedly belong to the moderate camp, have tried in vain to find a diplomatic solution through the friends of Iran in Europe, and even the help of Russia and China. It quickly became clear that both Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are the tail of the dog and it’s the IRGC who decide on policy in Iran. The IRGC wants to maintain its power and promote terrorism throughout the Middle East, even if Iranian citizens are the ones who have to pay the price.
Therefore, the Iranians have decided to turn up the flames, hoping that the Americans will agree to ease the sanctions as a way of avoiding any escalation that would hurt U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, leaders in Tehran are hoping that Europe and possibly even some Gulf states will cave in the face of terrorism and urge Washington to give up its policy or take action themselves to placate Iran.
Iran is a paper tiger. While it is capable of making its neighbors’ lives miserable and spreading terrorism throughout the region, when it is confronted directly and red lines are drawn—and when other nations are poised to strike—Iran falls back. That is what happened in Syria, for example, where Israel managed to check Iranian attempts to entrench itself. Besides which, Iran does not have the capabilities to withstand America’s military might, should it ever be turned on Tehran with full force.
Tehran is hoping that it can keep walking a tightrope and believes that through threats and terrorism it will achieve its goals and avoid total economic collapse. It appears that the Iranians are being encouraged by the international community’s lukewarm response and especially by the U.S.’s conduct, which they perceive as weak and hesitant. In the end, the Middle East is like the Wild West—anyone who draws a gun should shoot, or else their threats will carry no weight.
It cannot be denied that the United States is sending mixed signals. On one hand, it is applying harsh sanctions against Iran, but on the other, it is making it clear that it intends to pull out of the Middle East and not get bogged down in the muck of regional disputes. Washington is pointing an accusing finger at Iran as the party responsible for last week’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and is even threatening to respond if Iran dares to attack American interests.
However, the Americans are also expressing a willingness to enter into dialogue with Tehran. Even more importantly, they are not responding to Iranian terrorist attacks in the region.
Other than Israel, none of the countries in the region—particularly the Gulf states—have the ability to confront Iran on their own. So Washington will be forced to deal Iran a severe blow—not only to deter it but to prevent escalation and war. It would be better if that blow came sooner rather than later.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This column first appeared in Israel Hayom.