American military strategists say Tehran is most likely bluffing with a large-scale naval exercise, showing it can block the Strait of Hormuz at will, while never really meaning to go through with it, they say.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and Iranian sources are less sure. August and September are likely to be fraught with rising US-Iranian tensions in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, until Washington and Tehran settle on terms for launching talks on a new nuclear accord. The Trump administration insists on covering Iran’s ballistic missiles as well as its military behavior in the Middle East and the two strategic seas.
On the face of it, this prickly process mirrors the run-up to President Donald Trump’s historic encounter with North Korea’s Kim Jong un in Singapore. However, the Middle East milieu for this kind of diplomacy is quite different from Southeast Asia, and the challenges posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran are a lot more complex, in view of the following considerations:
- Iran’s nuclear program has been recognized by international bodies, including the United Nations and its watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as the six major world powers, who signed the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.
- The Trump administration can’t therefore demand the comprehensive dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, as it could in the case of North Korea
- No international body has ever mandated restraints on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is much larger than that of North Korea. Tehran has managed to remove it from every agenda. It is therefore doubtful whether the Trump administration will attain full closure.
- Iran is a venerable power with a long history, ancient culture and a population of 85 million. Its rulers are imbued with a deep sense of mission for disseminating their faith. Russia and China are allies.
- Iranians excel in games of political and strategic chess. Whereas President Trump is ready to sit down with President Hassan Rouhani at once, the Iranians are playing hard to get. First, they held out for the coming round of US sanctions to be suspended during negotiations. When Trump rejected this precondition, Iranian diplomats turned to sly bazaar tactics. This was not an ultimatum, they said, only a request for a light US hand on the new sanctions’ lever for as long as negotiations are ongoing.
When Trump said on Wednesday, Aug. 1: “I have a feeling they’ll be talking to us pretty soon. And maybe not, and that’s OK too,” he understood what was at stake. The rulers of Tehran won’t come to the table from a position of weakness, DEBKA Weekly’s sources assert. They need to be standing tall before sitting down – not only against their negotiating partner, but in the eyes of their own people. Iran is therefore plotting some nasty surprises for strengthening its hand at the table – not necessarily by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, or direct aggression, but rather by deploying terrorist proxies to strike its regional adversaries, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel.