By Edward Carney
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed legislation on Tuesday designating all US troops in the Middle East as terrorists and calling the US government itself a sponsor of terrorism. The bill takes specific aim at the Bahrain-based US Central Command, and its signing was accompanied by a statement from Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggesting that violent clashes could occur between CENTOM and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In highlighting these two entities as potential combatants, Araqchi underscored the newly signed law’s role as an act of retaliation against the Trump administration for assigning terrorist designation to the IRGC. The White House’s April 8 announcement was long expected, although it was also unprecedented in the sense that the US government had never previously applied terrorist designation to an official institution of any foreign government. Many affiliates of the IRGC had already come under sanction for their various actions in support of terrorism, but now the entire organization stands to be blacklisted, with serious potential implications for its economic power and its global profile.
By contrast, it is not at all clear what concrete effects, if any, the Islamic Republic’s retaliatory designation will have. Given Iran’s modest influence over foreign markets, the maneuver can reasonably be described as being rhetorical to a much greater extent than the comparable American gesture. Indeed, Araqchi’s statement played into this perception by adding to a growing Iranian narrative concerning the supposed danger of the Trump administration’s assertive strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic.
That strategy has been defined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others as “maximum pressure,” with its near-term goal being the complete halt of Iranian oil exports and its longer-term goal being to compel the Iranian regime into a comprehensive change of those behavior that have been condemned in the international community. Among the specific changes that have been demanded are an end to Iran’s ballistic missile development and testing, the withdrawal of Iranian forces and militant proxies from Syria, and a more general disengagement of the Iranian regime from the affairs of neighboring countries.
In outlining this strategy, the Trump administration has steadfastly avoided any suggestion of support for military intervention. It has also avoided the term “regime change,” although many analysts have concluded that that is the thinly veiled vision guiding the administration’s policies. That perception is arguably supported by various statements expressing support of domestic opposition movements pushing for a change of government in Iran, including those that gave rise to nationwide protests and chants of “death to the dictator” at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.
But in recent days, Iranian officials have downplayed the US government’s tacit endorsement of the Iranian Resistance, in order to promote the idea that powerful elements within that government are pushing for regime change not at the hands of the Iranian people but by way of American military intervention. This was Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s message on Sunday when he pointed to hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton alongside the US government’s regional allies and declared, “They have all shown an interest in dragging the United States into a conflict.”
Araqchi’s subsequent comments seemed to directly expand upon this accusation, raising the prospect of a military conflict but prejudging it as originating in the policies of the United States, not Iran. “These two forces that are designated as terrorist groups reciprocally might confront (each other) in the Persian Gulf or any other region. The United States will surely be responsible for such a situation,” the Deputy Foreign Minister said.
But even as such statements play up any perceived aggression in US foreign policy, they also downplay the growing list of examples of Iran’s plainly militarist rhetoric. As Forbes pointed out on Tuesday, multiple Iranian officials have reiterated longstanding threats about the prospective closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the wake of the IRGC blacklist and subsequent withdrawal of US waivers for importers of Iranian oil. The same outlet then noted that in an act of still further “escalation,” the Iranian military’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Baqeri, boasted of plans for joint naval exercises with Russia.
While Baqeri teased the potential support of Iran’s allies in a theoretical naval conflict, Hossein Salami, the newly appointed head of the IRGC, extended Iran’s threats to US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Salami’s appointment has been viewed as its own contribution to the escalating tensions between Iran and the US, insofar as he has been described as one of the “hardest of hardliners.” As such, he has openly contributed to familiar Iranian talking points about the destruction of Israel and about the readiness of the IRGC and the Iranian nation as a whole for conflict with the world’s foremost military superpower.
Prior to Salami’s appointment, the role of conveying these talking points had been assumed in large part by Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force. Among hardliners, Suleimani stands as a mythical figure and a symbol of Iran’s force projection beyond its borders. Accordingly, his likeness featured in an animated propaganda film in 2017 that showed a comparatively small Iranian force defeating a US Navy flotilla.
Such associations with Suleimani’s name arguably give greater weight to his words when he rejects the very notion of diplomatic engagement with the US or its allies. As US News and World reported, the Quds Force commander spoke on Monday before a conference of law enforcement officials in Tehran, where he seemingly contradicted Foreign Minister Zarif’s account of American’s desire for regime change, acknowledging instead that “the enemy wants to make us sit to the negotiating table by economic pressures.”
Despite this admission, Suleimani went on to say, “Such a negotiation is an instance of surrendering, but our people are vigilant and wise and believe that negotiation with the enemy under the present circumstances means surrendering. And we will definitely not accept this humiliation.”
US News and World noted that some analysts believe this commentary is indicative of an established policy of “strategic patience,” whereby Iranian officials will attempt to wait out the Trump presidency on the assumption that his successor will reinstate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and otherwise assume a less confrontational Iran strategy. But it is not clear to what extent Suleimani and other hardline figures are willing to court the possibility of military confrontation while the current US president remains in office.
This questions is perhaps made more urgent by the fact that self-described hardliners are not alone in pushing the narrative of Iran’s supposed military readiness. On Wednesday, Iran’s English-language propaganda outlet Press TV reported that President Hassan Rouhani – a pragmatic leader sometimes described as moderate by the standards of the Iranian regime – had used an event in Kermanshah Province to downplay the military threat posed by the United States.
“The Americans’ words are completely baseless. Their power does not [nearly] match their bluster,” he said. “We know the region and the power of the great Iranian nation better than them. Our nation’s [capacity for] sacrifice and power is greater than what the Americans can conceive.”
This statement was accompanied by Rouhani reiterating his promise that Iran would continue exporting oil regardless of US sanctions. By extension, it recalled attention to Rouhani’s own statements concerning Iran’s supposed ability to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation of any American efforts at impeding Iran’s seaborne exports. Yet American naval intervention has so far not been needed for the sake of limiting Iran’s trade and enforcing global compliance with relevant sanctions. And the latest data suggests that these sanctions have begun to have a negative impact on Iran’s preexisting military build-up, thereby expanding the gap between Tehran’s “power” and its “bluster.”
Although Voice of America News reported that Iran’s military spending for the year 2018 had been assessed at 13 billion dollars, the same study noted that this represented a decline of 9.5 percent compared to 2017, despite tensions between Iran and its adversaries escalating during that same period. While the decline represents the effects of a serious economic crisis, the Islamic Republic remains 18th in the world in terms of military expenditures, which speaks to the fact that the regime tends to prioritize brute strength and regional interventions over most other matters.
This is an ongoing trend, with total military expenditures over 10 years reaching to at least 140 billion dollars. As such expenditures shrink at a lower rate than the Iranian economy, leading Iranian officials seem poised to continue promoting a narrative of readiness for conflict with the United States and its various allies. And while these efforts are unlikely to be taken seriously by foreign military experts, their more important effect may relate to public perceptions of the government’s power within the Islamic Republic.
At the same time that it faces off rhetorically against the Western world, Tehran still faces domestic challenges from those Resistance movements that helped to spawn the 2018 uprising while earning tacit endorsement from the White House. In this context, Iran’s current militarist rhetoric may be aimed less at antagonizing the US or preemptively explaining the cause of future clashes than at inspiring fear among the Iranian public.
While reform-minded Iranians who take the regime’s statements seriously may conclude that the IRGC has ample military resources to turn against activist demonstrations, hardline supporters of the regime may accept those same statements as a warning about imagined threats from conflict-obsessed foreign enemies. But at the same time, both these narratives face simultaneous challenges from the effects of sanctions and the ongoing activity of the Iranian Resistance.