On Wednesday, a press release from the National Iranian-American Council pointed out that the latest congressional defense policy bill will include articles specifically stating that President Donald Trump does not have authorization to initiate war with Iran and that Congress is not aware of any current justification for doing so. For some critics of the White House, such assurances seem necessary in the wake of provocative gestures such as Trump’s all-caps tweet that identified his Iranian counterpart by name on Sunday and promised severe consequences for anti-American rhetoric and threats against the US.
But Trump followed up that tweet by declaring that he was ready to negotiate with the Iranians and make a new deal that would presumably replace the nuclear agreement from which Trump withdrew in May. This arguably lends credence to those commentators who tend to regard the president’s assertive and blustery statements as efforts to project an image of strength in advance of serious diplomatic outreach. Trump’s interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un provide a case study in this strategy, but some have insisted that North Korea and Iran cannot be regarded as parallels, in the sense that Iran cannot be expected to respond to the same sort of outreach.
Recent developments have lent credence to this view, as well. Prominent among them is Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi’s declaration on Wednesday that Tehran will never take part in what he characterized as “one-sided” and “under the shadow of a threat.” Al Jazeera reported upon the remarks and noted that they were issued specifically in response to Trump’s supposed willingness to pursue a new deal between the two countries. But whereas Trump’s tentative outreach provided a sort of counterbalance to his bellicose language on Sunday, there has apparently been no comparable shift in the language used by Iranian officials in general or by the administration of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
Quite to the contrary, the broader commentary surrounding Qassemi’s rejection of negotiations suggests that Tehran is only stepping up its own rhetoric as the deadline nears for the full-scale re-imposition of US sanctions that had previously been suspended under the 2015 nuclear deal. For example, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the foreign expeditionary Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said that Iranian forces are “ready to confront” the US, according to USA Today. Suleimani also highlighted recent concerns about the Trump administration starting a war, but went on to say that if that happens, “we will end it.”
In addition, Suleimani used his speech in the central Iranian city of Hamedan as an opportunity to extend veiled threats against American military forces to areas beyond the Persian Gulf. In the past, various officials including President Rouhani have suggested that Iran might close off the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation against Western measures aimed at halting Iran’s oil exports or otherwise weakening the Islamic Republic. But Suleimani seemed to hint at plans to impede the American presence in the Red Sea, as well. Reuters quoted him as telling supporters and allies of the Iranian regime that the vitally important waterway is “no longer safe” from the US.
On one hand, it is easy to disregard Iranian threats, especially such vague threats against a global superpower, as mere bluster. But on the other hand, Suleimani’s apparent warning was made more salient on Thursday when Business Insider reported that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen had launched attacks on Saudi Arabia oil tankers in the Bab al-Mandeb, leading the Saudis to close the strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a proxy war in Yemen for roughly three years, and Houthi attacks have variously reached beyond Yemeni territory, even targeting an American warship in surrounding waters on at least one occasion, albeit unsuccessfully.
It may only be coincidence that Suleimani’s remarks regarding the Red Sea were made in such close proximity to the attacks in the Bab al-Mandeb, or it may be indicative of an emerging strategy whereby Iran would use its proxies, allies, and IRGC operatives as part of a campaign of asymmetrical warfare against the US and its allies. In the meantime, Tehran’s efforts to project strength in foreign territorial waters while shoring up existing alliances were seemingly underscored by its deployment of two missile boats to participate in Russia’s International Army Games.
The Iranian Students News Agency quoted one Iranian naval official as explicitly putting the war games in context with prospective conflict between Iran and the United States. “Americans are always trying to wage psychological warfare against Iran in the region,” he said at a ceremony for the boats’ launch. “But by adopting the guidelines determined by our Supreme Leader, we will overcome the challenge.”
But Qassem Suleimani’s speech in Hamedan seemingly made it clear that Iran’s readiness to “confront” the United States involves the use of more than Iranian naval power and regional proxies. The Quds Force commander at one addressed the US directly to say of Iranian forces, “we are near you, where you can’t even imagine.” Such remarks strongly imply the intent to utilize terrorist operatives inside Western territory – a threat that is especially alarming in light of the fact that at least four individuals were arrested in June and July for planning and attempting to carry out a bombing of the international gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran near Paris.
Two scholars at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies published an article on Wednesday that highlighted this terror plot and its implications for Western policy toward the Islamic Republic. The authors decried the fact that European governments have so far maintained the status quo, even welcoming President Rouhani for a visit to Vienna, despite the fact that the alleged mastermind of the plot was a leading Iranian diplomat working in that same city.
The article made the argument that terror threats against Western targets will continue to emanate from the Islamic Republic unless the nations of Europe take an assertive approach to Iran policy and help the Trump White House in “mounting a comprehensive international pressure campaign that compels Iran to shut down its terrorism, spy and assassination network.”
But even this does not describe the full range of persistent Iranian threats against the US and its allies. On Thursday, the Associated Press published an article highlighting the threat of foreign-based hacking to Western national defense and economics. The report named Iran, Russia, and China as three principal sources of such threats, and specifically indicated that an Iranian hacking collective known as “Rocket Kitten” had been identified as repeatedly targeting US defense companies in order to steal information about American weapons technology and possibly adopt it into their own military capabilities.
One would assume that American congressional lawmakers are generally aware of the above threats and have taken them into consideration when determining that there is no known justification for war with Iran. That fact, as much as the existence of those threats themselves, goes a long way toward undermining Qassem Suleimani’s claim, and many other people’s worry, that if there is ever a war between the two countries, it will be the US that starts it.