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Biden’s dilemma over Iran’s skilled game of chicken

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The writer is former chief of MI6 and UK Ambassador to the UN

Iran was wrongfooted by Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel. Tehran hadn’t been consulted and the operation risked pulling Iran into a wider conflict it didn’t want. Six billion dollars that was about to be released by the United States in return for a prisoner exchange was blocked. There was a hint of irritation at Hamas in public comments by Iranian leaders.  

But in the nearly four months since, Iran has gradually turned the situation to its advantage. Hamas’s attack hurt Israel and exposed its vulnerability. It also stalled efforts to get Saudi Arabia to establish relations with Israel. So there were benefits for Tehran to build on. Across the Middle East, militants trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have ratcheted up the pressure against shipping in the Red Sea and bases used by US forces in Iraq, Syria and now Jordan. Hizbollah in Lebanon, by some way the most important of the Iran-backed groups, has added to Israel’s discomfort while keeping within the unwritten parameters of rocket exchanges across the border.  

US President Joe Biden has a lot on his plate in an election year. Who can blame him for wanting to avoid another conflict in the Middle East when memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are still sore? Iran doesn’t want a regional war either. But Biden’s clear priority of avoiding escalation has given Iran confidence to up the pressure, assessing that the consequences would be manageable. 

Meanwhile, Israel’s offensive in Gaza has lost momentum with Hamas’s leaders still alive and Israeli hostages still in captivity. As the shock at Hamas’s brutality recedes, western leaders are looking for a way to end the crisis, blocked only by a recalcitrant Netanyahu, fighting for his political survival. 

So is the Gaza crisis a victory for Iran? Are their leaders privately crowing? 

There are certainly positives for Tehran. Their strategy of forward defence — building up militias and creating the so-called Axis of Resistance — has proved itself. Each militia has its own identity and a degree of autonomy. Hamas’s assault in October shows that they are not all centrally directed by the IRGC’s Qods Force. Militias like Kata’ib Hizbollah, part of the umbrella group blamed by Washington for the drone strike that killed three US soldiers, have their own animus against America — their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the US strike in 2020 that assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force leader.  

All these militias depend on Iran for funding and weapons. The Houthis in Yemen, for example, would not be able to launch missile and drone attacks on Red Sea shipping, or rappel down ropes from helicopters to board vessels, without very specific IRGC training and materiel. But keeping them at arm’s length enables Iran to deny direct responsibility. That puts the burden of escalation on America’s back.  

But at the same time, Iran has its own security problems to deal with. The widespread street protests in late 2022 showed the underlying level of dissent against the regime.  

We think of Iran as a unitary state. But the regime has to deal with a variety of regional movements. The Baluch were briefly in the news last month after successful attacks in the country’s south-east and the bizarre Iranian response of missile strikes against Pakistan who face a similar Baluch separatist challenge. The Kurds are as big a problem for Iran as for Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Arabic speakers in oil-rich Khuzestan have been prone to unrest, and even the well-integrated Azeris in the north object to central direction, for example over language policy in the local media.  

In addition, Iran was targeted by Sunni terrorists last month, when more than 80 were killed by an offshoot of Isis operating out of Afghanistan. The regime’s lack of grip was exposed when they were unable to stop the attack even after advance warning from the US — an act of unrequited intelligence sharing.  

The biggest worry in Tehran is how to manage the leadership transition when the 84-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no longer able to continue as Supreme Leader. Transitions are always a dangerous moment for autocratic regimes and there is no obvious successor. Behind the scenes, there is debate on whether power should shift more overtly to the security forces. Soleimani’s killing in 2020 removed a charismatic leader who could have provided the glue in the regime. Calls by Khamenei on the IRGC to show “strategic patience” make me wonder whether there are increasing strains between them and the Supreme Leader’s Office.  

On top of all this is the nuclear question. The 2015 nuclear deal had its weaknesses but Trump’s abandonment of it let Iran off the hook of tight limits on its stocks of nuclear material and the IAEA’s close monitoring. As a result, Iran is getting ever closer to the threshold of nuclear weapons. The issue, rightly, remains a vital factor in the Biden team’s calculations.  

There is no easy answer to the dilemma facing the White House of how to prevent further militia attacks. The Iranian leadership is skilled at the elaborate game of chicken that is being played out. American strikes are expected following the attack in Jordan. To get Iran to rein in its proxies, these will have to play on the regime’s nervousness about stability at home. Frank diplomacy combined with a willingness to escalate will be required.  

 

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