Iran can’t go nuclear without facing a full blown US military strike, and it can’t resort to terror without its leadership being targeted.
It seems the first thing to go out of the window when a major event happens is common sense. Starting from the raising of the Red Flag over Jamkaran Mosque in Qom (simply signifying the unjust spilling of blood, not ‘severe war’) to predicting a Third World War, all we have is hyperbole shorn of facts. In such a situation it is probably best to look at what Iran’s options are and why things may actually be more stable now.
Iran is severely disadvantaged in conventional military terms vis-à-vis its Sunni neighbours. With a mere hundred effective aircraft it faces almost 500 Arab aircraft vastly more advanced than anything it has, not to mention the US fleet stationed in Bahrain. It was precisely to combat these odds that the Iranian came up with a two-pronged strategy. They couldn’t combat their neighbours conventionally, so they chose to combat them above and below the conventional layer, which is to say nuclear at the top end and terrorism/asymmetric warfare (which for the purposes of this article we will call ‘sub-conventional warfare’) at the bottom end.
The problem with sub-conventional warfare is, it leaves one open to severe conventional retaliation. So for example, when Hezbollah or Hamas attack Israel, Israel almost always responds with conventional force. This is fine for both Hezbollah and Hamas who are either not part of government (and hence not responsible for governance failure) or running a failed government desperate for external diversions. In short either they have nothing to lose or pass on the losses to the population.
Iran, unlike these two, is a strong functional state albeit in economic doldrums. This is compounded by the fact that since 2017 Iran has seen an organic opposition emerge, as opposed to the fake moderates represented by former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and former President Hassan Rouhani who were just as corrupt and bloodthirsty when they served under Ayatollah Khomeini as Khamenei is today. This restricts Khamenei’s freedom of action as he has to be extremely cautious about genuine internal opposition.
Whatever the domestic considerations, there is no denying that sub-conventional warfare have been a great force multiplier for Iranian foreign policy. We should not forget that it was through the adroit exploitation of these tactics and a willingness to accept massive human losses that Iran has created the ‘Shia Arc’ from Lebanon through Syria, Iraq, and ending in Yemen with all these states effectively being subordinate allies or outright protectorates of Iran.
This is a kind of influence that the Shah (who was in a much better military position) couldn’t have achieved in his wildest dreams, and it is no exaggeration to say that Khamenei actually expanded Iranian suzerainty over a greater area than the Sassanid Empire ever did. However, such bold sub-conventional moves always need a nuclear umbrella. This is why, North Korea and Pakistan can be far more outrageous in their support of cross border terrorism, and this was why Iran was moving towards nuclear weapons.
This is where the Iran nuclear deal comes in. What former US President Barack Obama promised the Iranians was that if they gave up nuclear weapons, the world would lift sanctions that had been imposed in Iran not just for pursuing nuclear weapons but also for terrorism. In effect what it meant was that if Iran agreed to give up nukes, the US and west would not just give them regime survival guarantees but also turn a blind eye to Iranian terrorism. Rightly this deal made Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and most of the GCC (some of the biggest victims of Iranian terror) apoplectic.
US President Donald Trump responded to this in two ways. One is that he withdrew from the nuclear deal essentially challenging Iran to go nuclear (Iran knowing full well that certain red lines would draw an American military response). The problem, however, was that being under renewed US sanctions, Iran felt it had the freedom to carry out sub-conventional actions with impunity as it always had. This is what Trump’s second action — killing Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force — blocked off.
As a result, today Iran is stuck without both its aces — it can’t go nuclear without facing a full blown US military strike, and it can’t resort to terror without its leadership being targeted. Net result? Iran can’t match the US and its Gulf allies conventionally, Iran can’t go nuclear and Iran can’t resort to terrorism. The real question now is what will Iran do given that its 40-year-old playbook just got flushed down the drain?
Knowing that the Iranians are past masters of diplomacy and turning disadvantage into advantage, no doubt the Iranians will come up with some counter. However, the way its security is structured, it will require a whole different paradigm. Till then, at least for a few years, we will see stability — ‘West Asia style stability’ which is never very stable anyway.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.