With Missile Strike in Syria, Tehran Lashes Out Against Escalating Pressure

Iranian Missile Strike in Syria

According to the Washington Post, the IRGC also claimed that several targeted individuals were killed in response to foreign-based threats, although the nature of those supposed threats was not immediately clear.

On one hand, the missile strike seems to have been justified in large part by the terrorist attack that killed more than two dozen people at a military parade in Iran’s Khuzestan Province on September 22.

However, responsibility for that attack was contested by ISIL and an Iranian-Arab separatist group, and Iranian officials appeared to generally accept the claims coming from the latter group.

This calls into question the superficial explanations for the strike in Syria, and it lends credence to the description of that strike as a show of force that was mainly aimed at the US, Israel, and Iran’s regional Arab adversaries.

Iranian military and political officials joined in blaming this “triangle of enemies” for the Khuzestan terror attack in the days immediately following it. No evidence has been presented to substantiate those claims, but the Islamic Republic has frequently alleged American backing for Arab separatists, ISIL, and other terrorist groups.

In line with this narrative, at least one of the missiles involved in the strike on eastern Syria was painted with the words, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to al-Saud.”

NBC News also noted that one reporter on Iranian state television commented upon the launch of the missiles by saying, “In a few minutes, the world of arrogance — especially America, the Zionist regime and the Al Saud — will hear the sound of Iran’s repeated blows.”

NBC cited this messaging to underscore the notion that while the physical target of the strike was in Syria, the accompanying propaganda was squarely aimed at “the Islamic Republic’s powerful foes.”

The incident comes in the midst of a period of escalating tensions between Iran and the US, as the former awaits the return of the last of the sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 nuclear deal with the US and five other world powers.

President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal in May citing its failure to bring about meaningful change in Iran’s behavior, including with regard to its missile development.
The withdrawal initiated two back-to-back waiting periods before the re-imposition of sanctions, the second of which is set to end on November 4.

The Trump administration has made clear that it intends to bring Iranian oil exports effectively to zero at that time, and although the European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are reportedly trying to facilitate sanctions-proof transactions with the Islamic Republic, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will actually slow the exodus of international businesses from the Iranian market.

So far, the Iranian regime has maintained a defiant tone in the face of the sanction threat. On Monday, one Iranian state media outlet, Mehr News, quoted Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as saying that the US “will fill in exercising” the new sanctions.

Meanwhile, Washington Times reported that the National Iranian Oil Company was still insisting that it has no plans to cut its oil production.

This is despite the fact that Iran’s total oil exports have fallen by approximately 35 percent since April, with some countries such as South Korean cancelling loadings altogether while others, like India, have dramatically reduced their Iranian imports.

The defiance coming out of the Iranian oil industry is evidently encouraged by government officials’ public optimism about the country’s prospects for evading US sanctions.

According to Iranian.com, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed on Saturday that Iran was close to concluding a deal on this matter with European countries. The previous week, the European Union announced its intention to put into place a “Special Purpose Vehicle” for Iranian transactions, but White House National Security Advisor John Bolton dismissed the announcement as lacking in specificity, and expressed confidence that Europe would ultimately have to comply with US sanctions anyway.

Many European businesses have already left the Iranian market in advance of the return of secondary sanctions, against the urging of their governments.

The impulse to flee that market will surely become stronger as American enforcement measures are implemented and the remaining investors in the Islamic Republic gain a clearer sense of the potential consequences of failing to pull out.

And even with the secondary sanctions still a month away, the White House may be able to elicit a comparable reaction by highlighting the ongoing enforcement of past sanctions violations.

Case in point, Reuters reported on Monday that the British lender Standard Chartered Plc was in the midst of discussions with US authorities that are expected to lead to 1.5 billion dollars in fines.

As the trend continues toward greater global isolation of the Iranian economy, the regime cannot fail to recognize the danger that it poses to its own hold on power, and anxiety over this threat can be expected to drive further efforts to lash out at regional and Western “enemies” as in the case of Monday’s missile strike.

Iranian.com noted that Zarif dismissed the notion when asked by reporters about the possibility of US sanctions weakening Tehran to the point of toppling the government. “If the US believed it would have succeeded in such an attack, it would have done so already,” he said, reportedly with a laugh.

But the foreign minister was responding to a threat that fellow Iranian officials have been quick to perceive in the actions of their global adversaries. NBC News reported last week that despite the lack of demonstrable connections between the US and the group or groups responsible, the Khuzestan terror attack gave rise to new concerns about the regime’s vulnerability to an assertive American strategy.

The report noted that it was on the same day of that attack that President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani took the stage at a rally of Iranian expatriates and said of the clerical regime, “They are going to be overthrown.

The people of Iran obviously have had enough.” And although the report went on to credit the speech with fueling IRGC-led narratives about a foreign plot to overthrow the regime, the expatriate group in question has never endorsed such an outcome but has lauded the possibility of domestically-driven regime change, aided by economic and diplomatic pressure from the international community.

Notwithstanding Zarif’s claim of an imminent oil trade deal with European nations, it does not appear as if the regime has any means of countering that pressure. Over the past several months, the value of the Iranian currency has fallen to record lows, and this has helped to drive popular protests, many of which have been characterized by chants of “death to the dictator” and other apparent endorsements of regime change.

Iranian officials and security forces have responded with violent repression but have been hesitant to attribute the ongoing crisis to US sanctions or other types of foreign pressure.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that 35 individuals had recently been sentenced in Iran for financial crimes, as part of an apparent effort to assign domestic blame for the economic crisis. Three of those individuals were sentenced to death.

The same report notes that the Iranian judiciary had also issued preemptive threats against labor organizers, fearing the resumption of strikes and protests, particularly in the transportation industry.

Past protests have seen physical clashes between activists and security forces, including the IRGC. And in the midst of a nationwide anti-government uprising in January, more than 8,000 people were arrested and more than 50 were killed.

This speaks to the essential difference between Tehran’s response to domestic conditions and the conditions beyond its borders. While the regime routinely employs but also downplays political violence against internal dissent, it boasts of prospective attacks in foreign regions, but rarely follows up on them, even in areas of considerable Iranian influence.

The regime’s own Fars News Agency acknowledged on Monday that the strike in Syria was the first of its kind since June 2017. And while Iran also launched a missile attack within Iraq last month, it had not previously done so since the 1990s.

Of course, the recent breaches of both Iraqi and Syrian airspace may be indicative of a greater willingness on the part of the regime to actually show force beyond its borders, rather than merely threatening it.

That possibility is arguably underscored by the fact that, according to Fars, the regular Iranian army issued a statement endorsing the IRGC’s strike and vaguely declaring that “no aggression will remain unanswered.”

Tehran may be emboldened in a more belligerent foreign policy if it appears to pushing foreign adversaries out of areas of mutual influence. And the USA Today reported on Monday that the US had closed its consulate in Basra following attacks by local Iranian proxies. However, the closure was described as temporary and the State Department vowed it would respond to any other attacks.

Furthermore, the markedly hardline Trump administration is unlikely to ignore more direct threats, such as the alleged close encounter between IRGC naval forces and the USS Theodore Roosevelt. According to the AP, the encounter was broadcast on Saturday by Iranian state media amidst threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Such incidents were commonplace in 2016 but diminished and then halted in 2017, leading many analysts to conclude that the IRGC and the Iranian regime had reconsidered their approach to foreign policy amidst credible threats from the White House.