By Jubin Katiraie
In remarks that could easily be perceived as a threat, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared on Thursday that either all countries in the Persian Gulf region will enjoy guarantees of security, or else “they will all be deprived of it.” The remarks appeared in an op-ed published by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai. Both the substance of that editorial and its intended audience were indicative of its role as part of a broader strategy of urging neighboring countries to alter their foreign policy so as to shift away from the US, which has imposed devastating sanctions on the Iranian government over the past year.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 2018, the White House inaugurated a strategy of “maximum pressure,” aimed at compelling Tehran to accept a more comprehensive nuclear deal and also scale back other destabilizing behaviors such as ballistic missile development and the support of regional militias. This strategy was generally embraced by America’s leading regional allies.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have launched a number of missiles strikes against airports, oil pipelines, and other targets in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Americans have both showcased recovered fragments from the sites of these attacks, to highlight their apparent Iranian manufacture and the trend of Iranian arms smuggling to regional proxies.
On the one hand, the Houthi attacks help to justify statements from Zarif and others regarding a tenuous security situation. But on the other hand, they also provide context for veiled Iranian threats, especially in light of accusations that the Iranians themselves have played a direct role in ongoing instability and unrest. These accusations achieved global prominence during the summer, when six commercial vessels were damaged near the Strait of Hormuz, apparently at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Also in June, the IRGC acknowledged shooting down an American surveillance drone, nearly sparking military retaliation after the US insisted that the aircraft had been operating over international waters. And in September, new missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil refineries briefly cut the country’s petroleum production in half. Although the attacks were claimed by the Houthi, that claim was quickly rejected by Riyadh and Washington. The latter identified the origin of the attack in southern Iran, and this information was later corroborated by the intelligence network of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK).
although Zarif’s op-ed stated that dialogue could open the pathway to regional security, it has been made clear in the wake of last month’s attacks that Tehran considers dialogue to be contingent upon Saudi compliance with Iranian demands.
While there is some dispute about the extent to which Tehran wields influence over the Houthi’s political and military strategies, Iran has a history of pushing its proxies to stay the course of open conflict, even in the face of overwhelming international concern. Iran relied on various Shiite militias to assist in backing the Assad regime throughout the eight-year Syrian Civil War, despite widespread accounts of human rights violations. And when multinational negotiations sought to broker ceasefires during that conflict, those militants were repeatedly blamed for continuing hostilities in accordance with Tehran’s strategy of stamping out moderate rebel groups before pursuing peace.
There is a reason to believe that Iran similarly expects to lead the Houthi to a dominant negotiating position in Yemen before accepting a political resolution to that conflict.
Furthermore, that sort of resolution would presumably play into an even broader Iranian strategy, whereby Iran would obtain leverage not just in regional conflicts but against its Western adversaries as well. Tehran’s interventions in Syria, Yemen, and other areas has been widely attributed to an effort to establish a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean. But in pursuing this aim, Iran also tends to publicly portray itself as a bulwark against Western influence, and thus as the prospective leader of a united Islamic world.
Of course, the prospect of securing this sort of hegemony is dependent on the Iranian government convincing its established partners and would-be partners that it is capable of successfully standing up to the US on the world stage, and possibly even on the battlefield.
This sort of rhetoric underpins the claim, expressed in Zarif’s editorial, that regional security matters should be placed in the hands of regional players in general, and particularly in the hands of Iran. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech to military leaders this month in which he voiced this idea and then argued that security would improve in proportion to how far away foreign entities like the US got from the region.
This notion is strongly disputed. Yet many of Iran’s strongest military claims appear to be based on fabrication.
The ground drones are only one example of questionable unveilings by the Iranian Armed Forces or the IRGC. Some commenters at Ars Technica compared it to the Qaher-313 “stealth fighter” and other items that were championed by Iranian state media only to be ridiculed internationally as non-functional mock-ups or outmoded equipment with something akin to a new coat of paint.
Yet none of this has stopped Iranian authorities from attempts to intimidate the West and awe the other countries of the region. And many of these efforts are vaguer and therefore less falsifiable.
Iran’s attack on Saudi oil installations cannot be expected to improve Tehran’s chances of forcing Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or other regional countries to accept Iranian leadership in lieu of assistance from the US.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the UAE both moved to join a US-led regional security coalition in the wake of the missile strikes, even as Iran was beginning to promote its own alternative to that program. Meanwhile, even Iran’s ally Russia has seemingly rejected the notion of an Iranian-led security plan that relies only on forces from the immediate area. President Vladimir Putin presented the idea of creating a broadly multinational alternative “almost from scratch,” and China’s Foreign Ministry tentatively backed the proposal immediately thereafter.