The U.S. vs. Iran

Tense Rhetoric Pushes Middle East Closer to Accidental War

With U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani trading taunts and threats, tensions between the two countries are reaching an all-time high. The slightest misstep could trigger yet another full-blown, armed conflict in the Middle East.

Brendan Smialowski/ AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a NATO summit, flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton

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Friday, 6/28/2019   06:39 PM

Three days after United States President Donald Trump called off a military attack against Iran at the last minute, his national security advisor, John Bolton, stepped up to a lectern in Jerusalem and fulminated against his archenemy.

Iran was still trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, he said, and arming the U.S.' enemies. No one should "mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness," Bolton said, adding that his country's military was "rebuilt, new and ready to go." It sounded as if he wanted to declare war with Iran right then and there.

Bolton is a central figure in the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. For years, he's pushed for a military strike against the Middle Eastern nation. "We are watching and we will come after you," Bolton said in September. When Iranian forces shot down a U.S. drone from the sky last week, it was Bolton -- along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel -- who urged the president to retaliate.

Is this how wars begin?

The U.S. and Iran have been at odds for four decades, though the danger of their hostility escalating into armed confrontation has never been greater. For weeks, the U.S. has been bolstering its presence in the Persian Gulf. Trump has boxed Tehran into a corner with his campaign of "maximum pressure" and Iran has been reacting increasingly aggressively. A volatile mix of threats, provocations and ultimatums is brewing in the region.

This week, Trump threatened the "obliteration" of parts of Iran. He was lashing out after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally disabled."

At the heart of this mutual animosity are decades of offenses, economic interests and vying for dominance in the region. On the one side is the American superpower, with the largest armed forces and the strongest economy in the world. It is prepared to use its economic clout as a weapon to enforce global sanctions against Iran. Washington has its allies in the region, including a nuclear-armed Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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On the other side is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the leading regional power in the Middle East, with its army of allied militias and armed groups reaching all the way from Lebanon to Pakistan. It is a massive non-governmental force of tens of thousands of men who listen to Tehran's orders. On top of this, Iran can count on the goodwill of Russia.

Somewhere on the periphery of all this -- passive, and therefore lacking all influence -- are Germany and Europe. Wars begin when there are no more channels of communication and everyone misjudges their opponent's motives and intentions.

No Way to Save Face

On Monday, Trump signed a directive that imposed sanctions against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It's hard to imagine Khamenei would support talks with his adversary in Washington under these conditions. And if the White House also imposed a travel ban against Iran's moderate foreign minister, Javad Zarif, it would alienate one of the last remaining high-ranking Iranian interlocutors willing to travel to the U.S.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas' trip to Tehran two weeks ago was a flop. The Germans didn't have anything to offer the Iranians. If anything, Maas' visit convinced Tehran that the Europeans cannot be counted on.

Wars also happen when there doesn't appear to be a face-saving way out for either side. The Iranians will not come to the negotiating table on their knees. With its sanctions against oil exports, the U.S. is shortening the lifespan of the regime in Tehran -- which will do anything it can to survive.


Iran has apparently pivoted from a strategy of patience to one of pinpricks. It means to show the U.S. that its "maximum pressure" comes at a price. Attacks have been carried out against American facilities in Iraq, though no one has taken credit for them. Houthi militias in Yemen have intensified their attacks against the U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. An oil tanker burned near the Strait of Hormuz, and though it's not entirely clear who attacked it and five other ships, the government in Tehran has long made it known that it considers the world's most important trading route for oil to be part of its strategic capital. If Iran can't export oil, then other countries shouldn't be allowed to do so either.

A Danger of Being Misunderstood

Wars sometimes happen by mistake. What if an American soldier were to be killed in Iraq by pro-Iranian militias?

In Washington, many of the details of the conflict with Iran bear the signature of John Bolton. He's been urging the president to take a harder stance against Tehran for months and has even been advocating military action. It wasn't Trump, but Bolton who announced in May that he was sending a combat unit led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as well as a bomber squadron toward Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.

Trump doesn't want a military conflict. On the contrary, he means to draw U.S. forces out of the costly wars in the Middle East. But he's using the might of the American military to threaten Tehran, like he did with North Korea. It became clear last week that this double strategy isn't working so well.

For months, advisers to the president have vowed to retaliate if Iran attacked American soldiers or U.S. allies in the Middle East. In May, John Bolton warned, "Any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force." It didn't sound like he was talking about sanctions against the Iranian economy, but about war.

Then last week, Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. drone. Tehran said the drone had crossed into Iranian airspace. The Pentagon maintains the aircraft was over international waters.

At the White House, the Department of Defense presented the president with plans for retaliatory strikes. According to the New York Times, Trump at first approved the plans but then changed his mind 10 minutes before the operation was set to begin. The president wants to bring the regime in Tehran to the negotiating table. He wants to show strength. But he has underestimated the Iranians' persistence. Now all Trump can do is escalate or give in.

Many Republicans in the Senate and Congress consider the prospect of war with Iran risky and unnecessary, though there is an influential group of Congresspeople that supports Bolton's hard line. "The only thing Iran and every other thuggish regime understands is Strength and Pain," Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote on Twitter. The senator from South Carolina, an ally of Trump's, suggested the president should sink Iran's navy and bomb its refineries should Tehran endanger shipping in the Persian Gulf again.

The former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told DER SPIEGEL in an interview that he considered the current situation very dangerous. "If you struck targets in Iran, missile sites or military installations or other targets," he said, "Iran would literally respond, either by shooting missiles at our military bases in the Gulf or having missiles fired towards Israel."

Unrealistic Expectations

Wars happen when one side believes it can easily win.

Bolton's allies in Congress believe Iran could quickly be defeated. For what it's worth, neoconservative hardliners said the same thing about Iraq in the run-up to the Iraq War. Sen. Tom Cotton recently said that a military conflict with Iran wouldn't have to last long. Only two strikes would be necessary, he said: the first and the last.

Bolton's problem is that the president requires Congressional approval if American soldiers are to be involved in an armed conflict. At the moment, it doesn't appear likely that Trump would receive a majority of support for such a deployment. The Democrats are against him. Bolton's allies in the White House are therefore trying to come up with a workaround. To the surprise of many observers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in April that there were links between Iran and al-Qaida. If such an assertion could be proven, military operations against Iran could fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S.' ongoing fight against terror.

Like Trump, Iran has no interest in going to war with the U.S. The regime knows it could never win such a conflict. But the U.S.' abandonment of the nuclear deal strengthened the forces within Iran who oppose any sort of rapprochement with Washington: conservative hardliners and their armed forces -- the Revolutionary Guard.

An Elite Fighting Force

Supreme Leader Khamenei and his followers created a two-track system of power in 1979. On the one hand, there is the state with its limited democracy, the parliament, a president and the regular armed forces. On the other, there is the so-called Sepah-e Pasdaran, known internationally as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was first created as a protective force against the "enemies of the revolution."


Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Over the past 40 years, the Revolutionary Guard has developed into a force with its own economic empire. It dominates large swaths of the Iranian economy, controlling airports, oil rigs and companies. The 125,000 troops within its ranks answer only to the "revolutionary leader." Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of modern Iran, in 1989, Ali Khamenei has held this position.

The Revolutionary Guard, however, has benefitted from Western sanctions for many years. It was they who filled many of the gaps left behind by Western corporations under hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They also created a network of smugglers, middlemen and dubious suppliers who transported banned goods into the country.

Soon after the revolution, the Islamic Republic exported its militia model to the surrounding neighborhood. In Lebanon, the Revolutionary Guard began establishing Hezbollah -- the Shiite group with its own militia -- in 1982. To this day, Hezbollah has successfully fended off any attempt to subordinate its estimated 20,000 fighters to the Lebanese government or to submit to any form of state authority.

Shiite militias emerged in Iraq, too, after the U.S. invasion in 2003. In 2014, several of these militias banded together to form the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces. They are financed, but not controlled, by the Iraqi state. The three most powerful of these militias are under the direct command of the Revolutionary Guard.

A Powerful Commander

In Syria, Hezbollah came to the aid of the embattled army of the dictator Bashar Assad in 2012. They were followed by tens of thousands of fighters recruited in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without the help of this Shiite fighting force, Assad wouldn't have stood a chance. Even the intervention of the Russian air force in 2015 would have been too little, too late.

The chain of command for all of these groups can be traced to the Iranians, or more precisely, to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guard responsible for foreign operations. Soleimani has acquired a kind of pop star status through the wars in Syria and Iraq, where he has allowed himself to be photographed on the front lines with a Palestinian scarf around his shoulders and his gray beard neatly trimmed.

Yet even Soleimani's most loyal adherents in Lebanon and Iraq have no interest in a large-scale war with the U.S. No one wants to see the region bombed. In Iraq, even the most radical commanders warn of a war that would destroy the country.

America's wars in Iran's neighboring states began with a clear goal: regime change. The U.S. and its allies overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but the country's archenemy, the Islamic regime in Iran, is still in power today.


Visitors to the old main bazaar in Tehran: "The young people have lost faith in the future."

The attempt to destabilize the Iranian government through sanctions hasn't worked so far. There is massive dissatisfaction over the country's economic plight, and Iranians are desperate and angry -- not only because of the American sanctions, but also due to the corruption and maladministration by their own rulers.

Protests and unrest are frequent, and people often take to the streets to protest in Tehran or in other cities. But the protests haven't yet grown into any kind of movement that could become dangerous for the regime. It is lacking direction, a leadership figure and a political program.

Iranians Are Used To Uncertain Times

"The economy is very strongly affected by sanctions," says Bijan Khajehpour, managing director of the Vienna-based management consultancy Eunepa, "but that doesn't threaten the regime's stability." He said Iranians don't want to risk the country slipping into a civil war as happened in Iraq and Syria.

The Iranians are used to uncertain times. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on the country for almost four decades. These days, though, the mood in the Iranian capital seems nervous and depressed. Tehran residents are constantly following the news, on their mobile phones and on the television screens on the walls of their cafés.

Iran's economy has been in a state of free fall since the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear agreement. The dollar exchange rate has more than doubled within a year, and President Rouhani's government has failed to stop the rampant rise in basic food prices. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that inflation could reach 40 percent or more this year and that gross domestic product will shrink by around 6 percent. A few weeks ago, Iranian economic experts lamented the fact that around half of the Iranian population is now living below the poverty line.

"The value of our savings is decreasing by the day. Everything is unpredictable. This stress is driving everyone crazy," says Azadeh, 42, a psychologist and university lecturer from northern Iran. "The young people have no faith in the future," she says by phone, "they wonder why they should study, because their earnings will never be enough to live on. They're constantly thinking about leaving the country. Anywhere, regardless where."

Ahmad, 50, is an employee with a company in Tehran that sells machine parts. Although business has further deteriorated as a result of the new sanctions, Ahmad believes that the pressure from the Trump administration has done more to stabilize the regime. "The U.S.' withdrawal from the nuclear agreement led many Iranians to back our religious leadership again," he says. "Now everyone has come to understand that America can't be relied on."

Is this how wars start? Any day now, Iran is expected to exceed the amount of lowly enriched uranium permitted under the nuclear agreement and thus officially breach the treaty. Soon after, the ultimatum that Iran has given to the remaining signatories of the nuclear deal expires. Even after that, it isn't expected that Tehran will terminate the agreement, but it is likely that it will adhere to it less and less.

A Closer Alliance with Russia

According to Iranian observers, Tehran is assuming that UN sanctions won't get reintroduced despite these actions, under the assumption that the Russia and China would veto that step at the Security Council. That would be a triumph for Tehran, too, given that there hasn't been a single pro-Iranian vote in the council in the past 40 years.

Iran is no longer hoping for the Europeans' support and is instead forging an even closer alliance with Russia. As in Syria, Moscow appears to be trying to exploit the errors and weaknesses of the West to expand its influence. Moscow is ignoring U.S. sanctions and stepping up trade with Iran and has recently signed a number of investment contracts, notably in Iranian infrastructure.

Tehran also received political support from Moscow this week. On Tuesday, the Kremlin publicly backed the Iranian version of the incident in which the American drone was shot down, with Russian security adviser Nikolai Patrushev saying there is evidence the U.S. violated Iranian airspace. He made the statement in Jerusalem, at a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, John Bolton.

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