The United States and Iran, acting on perceptions of one another that seem to be engraved in stone, are on a collision course that could have devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states and Iraq. The risk is magnified by each one’s adoption of policies and strategies that are based on faulty assessments of the other.
The United States and Iran have waged a contentious dialogue of the deaf for much of the past four decades.
It is a dialogue that seemingly brought the two countries to the brink of war in January following tit-for-tat attacks with potentially devastating consequences for Arab Gulf states.
The tit-for-tat culminated in the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani that initially was thought to have deterred Iran.
It did not, and the talking past one another heightens the risk of things getting, again, out of hand.
Successive US and Iranian governments are the culprits even if US President Barak Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, attempted to change the course of history with a 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The agreement failed to revise deep-seated distrust, including US perceptions that Iran seeks to destabilize the Middle East and sow regional mischief and Iran’s conviction that successive US administrations and their regional allies seek regime change in Tehran.
In a sign of the times, the global pandemic has become another Iranian-US battlefield in which both sides are driven by perceptions of one another rather than a will to create opportunities to break the logjam.
Perceptions have been reinforced not only by a US refusal to ease harsh sanctions, but also Saudi Arabia’s failure to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates by shipping medical supplies to Iran and by Iran’s attempt to use the pandemic to pressure Washington and secure financial aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The divide is further magnified by the fact that misperceptions have filtered into the fabric of foreign policy communities of both countries that lead to policy recommendations potentially based on problematic analysis.
The killing of Mr. Soleimani did everything but send a message warning Iran that it was playing with fire.
It missed the point that Iranian strategy, after initially failing to pressure the Trump administration into reversing its 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear accord, is centred on playing with fire.
Iran last weekend stepped up Revolutionary Guard speed boat patrols in the Gulf after the United States warned that there had been “dangerous and harassing approaches.”
Rightly or wrongly, Iran is likely to believe that it is a strategy that may not have achieved its main goal so far but has produced results.
Iran appears to see forcing a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as achievable and will interpret the recent concentration of US forces in a smaller number of Iraqi bases as a step in that direction.
The US says the redeployment was planned prior to President Donald J. Trump’s assertion that Iran was planning “a sneak attack” against American forces.
Iran last year opted for gradual escalation involving attacks on US targets in Iraq as well as critical national infrastructure in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to bring the region to the brink of war.
Convinced that neither the United States nor Iran wants a war, Iranian leaders hope that heightened tension will open the door to a return to the negotiating table.
If that were correct, it would throw into doubt recommendations that the United States should adopt a strategy of deterrence against Iran, similar for example to Israel’s successful bid to push Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria away from the Jewish state’s border.
Some 200 airstrikes against 1,000 targets “slowed Iran’s military build-up in Syria while avoiding a broader regional conflagration that would have been damaging to Israel’s interests,” the Center for a New American Security said in a report released last week.
The problem is that comparing Iranian policy towards the United States and Israel amounts to comparing apples and pears. Iran has no interest in pushing Israel towards a negotiation nor does it want to risk an all-out war.
In other words, Israel may find it far easier than the United States to deter Iran. Escalated US attacks on Iranian targets, unlike Israeli strikes, would probably serve Iran’s immediate purpose.
The lay of the land is complicated not only by the rejiggering of US forces in Iraq but also the country’s internal political dynamics.
The killing of Mr. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander who died alongside the Iranian general, has brought to the surface differences among pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. The two men were pivotal figures in keeping the militias in line.
Some militias are demanding that they be integrated into the Iraqi military while others want to continue operating independently albeit in close association with the military and yet others have forged alliances with criminal networks.
All in all, little suggests that US-Iranian tensions can be reduced without the political will to revisit and puncture perceptions of one another. That may be a tall order given that the nuclear accord failed to create a real opening.
Yet, even without an opening, both the United States and Iran would do well to take a hard look at their perceptions in a bid to realistically assess their options.
“The United States and Iran are on a collision course . . . because [they] . . . hold very different interpretations of reality,” said strategist and Middle East scholar Ross Harrison. “The United States, which had built its doctrine around combatting a global threat from the Soviet Union, found itself flatfooted in dealing with a regional phenomenon like post-revolutionary Iran…. The United States can injure Iran, but it is unlikely to be able to compromise Iran’s regional influence.”
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia