By launching a series of medium-range ballistic missiles towards targets close to areas under American control in eastern Syria, Iran is approaching the “American red lines” without actually crossing them. This can only be seen as an escalation of Iranian “reactions” to Washington’s “actions” against it since it decided to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal and reinstated harsher and more comprehensive sanctions on Iran.
According to various sources, the targets hit by Iranian missiles belong to Daesh while Tehran accused a separatist Ahwaz organisation of being responsible for the bombing that killed and wounded dozens in the Ahwaz incident two weeks ago. Regardless of whether there is a link between the Al-Ahwaziya organisation and Daesh or not, it seems clear that Tehran was waiting for the chance to flex its muscles in a confrontation with the US, which has constantly been talking about clipping Iran’s regional claws and pulling out its fangs, and stopping the development of its missile and nuclear programmes.
What happened in Ahwaz, and the Iranian missile response inside Syria, provide training or a “rehearsal” for what a confrontation between Iran and Washington may be like in the next phase. The two countries will not slip into an all-out war, as no one wants that and no one wants to pay the high cost of such a war. The two countries are as far as they can be from the negotiating table, in terms of direct negotiations or through back channels, unless there is a big surprise and Trump does a complete 180, like he did with Korea less than a year ago, ultimately resulting in a love story between himself and his rival Kim Jong-un.
There is a large spectrum of options and alternatives between war and peace, which the confrontation between Washington and Tehran will touch on. For example, in Iraq, Iran succeeded in toppling Washington’s candidate to head the next government, Dr Haider Al-Abadi, and although it failed to impose one of its own candidates, Nouri Al-Maliki or Falih Alfayyadh, the compromise that may result from the efforts to choose a president and form a government, indicates that the time of settlements and consensus between the two major players is over, and will be replaced with the time of “wrestling wills”.
To confront the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), or Arab NATO, as dubbed by Washington in New York, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings, which includes the 6+2+1 group countries, Iran is working on solidifying its relations with the Astana trio. It is willing, in this context, to tolerate some of Turkey’s undesirable positions and actions in hopes of preserving Ankara’s friendship. It will also attempt to develop its relations with Moscow given the tension in the relation between Moscow and Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the shooting down the IL-20 plane. It is likely that Iran will not respond to the American pressures in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and that its first choice will be to confront the “finger biting” and the “wrestling of wills” until the dust settles in the US after the scandals and elections, and it is unclear whether or not Trump will continue his term or if he will be elected for a second. According to observers, it seems that Tehran decided to take John Kerry’s advice to wait Trump out, because he will not last long in the Oval Office.
This means that in the Middle East, that the crises in the region, from Yemen to Lebanon, including Iraq and Syria, will not calm down or be permanently resolved. Tehran will seek to drain Washington and its allies in these arenas, as well as hinder its programmes and projects, putting a spoke in the wheels of its allies. On the other hand, as Nikki Haley put it, Washington’s objectives behind the American sanctions on Iran are to stifle it and subdue it in order to prepare it to return to negotiations in accordance with the US administration’s conditions, summarised by Mike Pompeo in 12 conditions, each of which is tantamount to declaring an acceptance of defeat or signing a “memorandum of acquiescence”.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 3 October 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.