Over the past three weeks, senior US officials have issued a series of increasingly sharp warnings to the Iranian government to cease threats to US personnel or face the consequences. The tone and frequency of these warnings indicate that Washington is confident in its assessment of both Iran’s apparent involvement in past attacks and its preparations for future threats. The Trump administration is clearly communicating that it will respond forcefully should Tehran test US resolve.
At the same time, Iran is being buffeted by a growing number of political, economic, and security challenges that it may believe warrants a strike by its military and security services against militants, regional adversaries, and, possibly, the United States.
The idea that Iran may be planning attacks against US personnel is unsurprising. Tehran included the United States on the list of countries and groups it blames for the deadly September 22 attack on a high-profile Revolutionary Guard parade in Ahvaz, the capital of its restive and oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which left twenty-five dead, including twelve Guard members, and another sixty wounded. With this having taken place just over a year after the unprecedented ISIS attacks in Tehran, Iran’s security leadership is no doubt under pressure to show that they can punish those behind these high-profile attacks.
The attack underscores another problem: minority Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, and Kurds all claim to have been victims of decades of discrimination, underdevelopment, and exploitation, which has left them poor, drought-stricken, and unemployed, and surrounded by environmentally damaged landscapes. These groups maintain small, committed, vocal, and fractious groups abroad, some of which are prepared to use violence to achieve their goals. Iran believes many of these groups have been trained, or at least funded, by Western or Arab adversaries, although it has never produced evidence for these allegations.
In addition, Iran’s long-standing efforts to secure influence in Basra—which rests across the border from Khuzestan—have witnessed a series of setbacks. Local opposition to Iran’s proxies in Iraq, who lack the skills needed to improve the living conditions of the area’s impoverished population, is on the rise. On September 7, protestors burned the Iranian Consulate and hurled firebombs at the offices of Iran’s militias. The widespread media coverage of these attacks must have made hard viewing for those Quds Force officers who have devoted so many years to building Iran’s influence in the area.
Finally, while Tehran may take small satisfaction from the continued dispute between Washington and Europe over the nuclear deal, the US sanctions campaign has cost Iran most of its foreign commercial investors and many oil customers. The Trump administration used the United Nations as a venue to announce that it will do everything it can to expand its pressure campaign against Iran.
Iran’s potential scope of operations is considerable. Already it has launched another salvo of missiles against ISIS bases in close proximity to US areas of operation in Syria, its second such attack in a month. Further Iranian offensive actions could involve attacks in Iraq, Syria, and/or Yemen; acts of terrorism; or cyberattacks. While neither the United States nor Iran appears to seek a conventional conflict, Iran’s leaders may calculate that the West’s inability to maintain previous redlines may allow it to escape retaliation for further violence. The stage is therefore set for a sudden and sharp escalation of regional violence, which could lead to a broader conflict.
The locus for the recent threats against the United States appears to be centered in Iraq. In early September, Washington announced that it held Iran responsible for rocket attacks by Shi’a militias against US diplomatic facilities. In mid-September, National Security Advisor John Bolton publicly warned Iran that there would be “hell to pay” following any Iranian actions against the United States. And on September 28, the State Department announced the closure of the US Consulate in Basra in a stiffly worded statement that cited threats by “the government of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and … militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.” The announcement added that “the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias.” This message was also apparently passed in private diplomatic channels to the government of Iran.
It takes little imagination to believe that Iran would focus its surrogates against the US Consulate in Basra. Strategically located near the border with Kuwait and serving four Iraqi provinces, the consulate is a symbolic and practical irritation to Iran, which maintains the narrative that it alone seeks to engage and represent the Shi’a of the region. Iran’s proxies in the area are some of its most seasoned, violent, and loyal, giving Iran a cutout to undertake attacks.
But it would be a mistake to see American interests in Basra as the only—or even the highest-priority—target for Iran’s violent retaliation in the coming weeks and months. Iran has yet to punish those it believes to have been responsible for the September 22 attacks; it continues efforts to enable missile strikes against Saudi Arabia; and the Quds Force appears committed to the establishment of a more aggressive military presence in Syria. Iran’s successes in any of these theaters could provoke a counterpunch by Iran’s targets, taking the region higher up the escalatory ladder.
Looking beyond recent and ongoing events, the Trump administration’s introduction of punishing sanctions on November 5 will be seen by many in (and outside of) Iran as intended to weaken the regime’s very foundations.Washington has also increased the pace of its diplomatic efforts to create an “Arab NATO” to contain Iran. Although this campaign may be frustrated by the GCC fracture with Qatar, Tehran can only see this plan as a strategic threat that must be killed in the cradle.
Iran’s domestic unrest is almost certain to continue. Aside from the impending sanctions, the country’s leadership is grappling with unprecedented demographic, economic, environmental, and political challenges. National confidence in the spectrum of Iran’s political leadership has fallen. Protests may not be such as to threaten the collapse of the regime, but their persistence and flavor show a country in crisis. Tehran’s security leaders will certainly expect Iran’s many external opposition groups and regional adversaries to take advantage of this perceived weakness.
Tehran likely has three goals in coming months: to reassure its population that its security forces can safeguard the country and punish terrorists and those who support them; to support external allies to protect the fruits of its adventurism; and to deter foreign adversaries who may seek to exploit Iran’s perceived weakness. Iran’s toolkit will draw from assassination operations in Europe; cyberattacks and missile attacks; and expanding surrogate capabilities. Diplomatically, Foreign Minister Zarif will use the venues offered by nuclear talks to press Europe for action against Iran’s external opposition, claiming that doing so would allow him to maintain hard-liner support for the deal in Tehran. Domestically, Iran is likely to roll out propaganda aimed at reducing internal dissent while assigning additional security resources to border regions.
The Ahvaz attack and growing domestic and external pressures are likely to produce unity among Tehran’s elites, at least in the short term. But to say that these pressures undercut Iranian moderates is to overstate the case. Beyond the nuclear deal and periodic rhetoric, President Rouhani’s moves against the Revolutionary Guard have been few. Even his rhetoric diminished in the wake of his 2017 election, in part due to US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, but more likely because he seeks to enhance his reputation with the hard-line elements who will select Iran’s next supreme leader.
The current environment will increase the need for engagement with Iran, if only to avoid miscalculations in the wake of future incidents. Europe is well positioned to play this role. But beyond this, diplomatic options are likely to be few. Historically, Iran has eschewed diplomatic engagement on terrorism, including cooperation against ISIS. Negotiation on regional issues offers few benefits. Iranian politicians are unlikely to risk their political futures by proposing serious talks with the Americans or the Saudis. Aside from the current toxic political environment, such talks inherently imply Iran’s willingness to compromise on its regional ambitions and domestic missile program.
Externally, the diplomatic environment remains similarly unattractive. The Trump administration almost routinely announces its interest in engaging Iran, but only if Iran will end the destabilizing behavior that has become so important to the regime’s identity. Europe and remaining US supporters of the deal continue to see regional tensions as the result of Saudi–Iranian rivalry that can best be ended by allowing Iran greater regional influence. The Sunni states, which see themselves as under routine lethal attacks by Iranian proxies, unsurprisingly reject this paradigm as an invitation to suicide.
Thus, the stage is set for further escalation and bloodshed, and no player has much incentive to compromise. In this environment, if Iran chooses to conduct a serious attack against Western or Arab interests, a counterstrike is more likely than ever. Longtime victims of Iran’s aggression will say that only a strong response will show Iran that they have reached the end of their patience with its years of attacks. It will be important to ensure that any retaliatory responses are accompanied by an equally robust diplomatic and careful public messaging campaign to avoid further escalation.