Don’t expect US-Iran war before 2021

(Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders report directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R)) 

There is no reason to disbelieve the boast by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming credit personally for US President Donald Trump’s decision to designate Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a “foreign terrorist organisation” under American law. It is common knowledge that all major decisions and most minor decisions by Trump regarding the West Asian situation are dictated by Israel’s interests. 

Deep-pocketed Jewish billionaires such as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, far-right Christian evangelicals and the well-known Israeli lobby wield enormous influence over Trump whose son-in-law Jared Kushner is also known to be an ardent Zionist who has funded West Bank settlements. Both decisions by Trump in recent weeks — granting US recognition to the illegal Israeli annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights region as well as yesterday’s move against Iran’s IRGC — are to be seen as motivated by the desire to bolster Netanyahu’s campaign seeking a fresh term in Israel’s parliamentary election on April 9. 

The Pentagon and the State Department had reportedly expressed misgivings over Trump’s decision branding IRGC as a terrorist organisation. Indeed, Trump’s announcement on April 8 says clearly that the US state department will take the lead role in implementing this decision. Trump avoided voicing any intention to confronting the IRGC militarily and instead underscored his decision is to impose economic sanctions against the Iranian security organisation. 

Considering that the IRGC has a long reach in the economic arena, especially in vital sectors such as energy, telecommunications, etc., in effect, Trump’s decision amounts to an extension of the US sanctions against Iran. Therefore, as Trump put it, the decision becomes a template of his “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran, which has been under implementation. 

Tehran’s reaction has been surprisingly restrained under the circumstances. To be sure, Tehran has retaliated by naming the US Central Command (which is headquartered in Doha and covers the so-called Greater Middle East stretching from the Levant to Central Asia) as a terrorist organisation. Interestingly, Iranian reports highlighted that it is a “tit-for-tat” measure — that is, a move Iran had no choice but to make. The overall mood is one of resignation that the Trump administration is under the Israeli spell and has taken a step that is not exactly in American interests. 

There have been no threatening statement from Tehran directed at the US, either. In a highly nuanced remark, the influential chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament,  Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh hastened to clarify that Iran’s measures against the US Central Command, in response to US anti-IRGC move, is defensive, not a declaration of war.

Again, Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council, which is the apex executive body on foreign and security policies, has also restricted itself to saying in a statement, “Undoubtedly, the US regime will bear all the responsibilities for the dangerous consequences of its adventurist move.” This must be noted carefully as a signal to the US defence and security establishment.

(Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a group of IRGC personnel and their families in Tehran on April 9, 2019)

Most important, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei estimated Trump’s move as only to be expected, given the IRGC’s pivotal role in countering Iran’s enemies. He said the US move will fall flat. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari was quoted as saying, “This U.S. move was quite laughable since the Revolutionary Guards are in people’s hearts … The Revolutionary Guards will increase its defensive and offensive capabilities in coming year.” 

On the political plane, however, Tehran will step up its “resistance”. More Iranian support for Hamas can be expected. Similarly, the US move, coming hot on the heels of recognising the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, will only further further consolidate the “resistance”. The known unknown is going to be the impact on Afghanistan. Tehran has links with the Taliban. But it has been voicing strong backing for President Ashraf Ghani’s insistence that the peace talks should be “Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled.” Iran’s overriding concern is the stability of Afghanistan and the welfare of the Shi’ite communities. Conceivably, the US must be factoring in the imperative need to discourage Iran from playing a spoiler role in Afghanistan.

Among the Iranian security agencies, it is the IRGC that is in the driver’s seat in steering policies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is, the US Central Command and the IRGC (plus various Iran-backed militia forces) “co-habitate” these theatres. It is inconceivable that the US would precipitate any hostile moves against the IRGC that draw forth retaliation and jeopardise the safety and security of American personnel. Iran has the capacity to infect pain and give sleepless nights to the US personnel deployed under the Central Command and, to be sure, the Pentagon and the CIA are well aware of that. 

We may, therefore, expect a tacit understanding by the two antagonistic parties to stay out of each other’s path. Of course, that is easier said than done, since these are high kinetic theatres witnessing acute confrontation. But then, US-Iran tango has a 40-year history of shadow boxing.

Some shrill rhetoric can be expected from the US side, especially from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Both are stridently “anti-Iran”. Bolton had been in the payroll of Iranian dissident groups based in the West. Both Pompeo and Bolton are passionately devoted to serving Israeli interests. But, in the final analysis, it is Trump — and Trump alone — who matters. 

Quite obviously, Trump will be extremely wary of getting into a shooting war with Iran. Trump knows only too well that a war with Iran will have regional ramifications and can hurt his presidency. His game plan through this year and the next will be to ensure that his “maximum pressure” strategy deters Iran from causing any serious political embarrassment during his campaign, which is due to start later this year, for his re-election bid in 2020.

Suffice to say, Trump’s IRGC designation is unlikely to lead to any shooting war with Iran — till end-2020, at least. Having said that, there will be no let-up in Tehran’s pursuit of “resistance” in Syria and Iraq. And, given the pivotal role of the IRGC in Iran’s foreign and security policies, any form of direct engagement politically or at the diplomatic level between Washington and Tehran can be ruled out. Having said that, make no mistake that the US’ regional strategies in Syria and Iraq will come under severe challenge. To be sure, a strategic stalemate is Israel’s objective too as the guarantee against US retrenchment from the Middle East.