US-Iran Dispute: Hot Rhetoric and Calculated Restraint

Both the Trump administration and the ayatollahs in Tehran were being careful this week not to tip their feud over the brink into a clash of arms.
Pouring oil on the troubled relations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday, Feb. 7: “Unlike what US President Trump thinks, the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers was a win-win-accord. Everyone benefits from it… the nuclear negotiations can be used as an example for other talks to bring stability and security to the region.”
(Republican) House Speaker Paul Ryan, catching the drift from the White House, commented: Trump has decided not to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. He would have concluded that even a bad deal is better than no nuclear deal.”
But then, at a meeting with military commanders in Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ranted furiously in response to Trump’s sharp warning to stop Iran’s missile tests: “No enemy can paralyze the Iranian nation. Trump says ‘you should be afraid of me.’ No! The Iranian people will respond to his words on Feb, 10 (the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution) and show how they stand up to such threats.”
To notch up the suspense, an Iranian Safir launch vehicle, previously used to put a satellite into orbit, was caught by US satellite imagery – first being prepared on a launch pad and, a few hours later, inexplicably removed.
US officials were left scratching their heads over Iranian plans for Revolution Day: Were they preparing to stage a multiple satellite launch or some other stunning spectacle from a hidden site? Or were they just intent on keeping America guessing?
For now, Tehran has chosen to confine its military provocations against America and its allies to an arena which stirs little international media attention, the conflict in Yemen.
Saturday, Feb. 4, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were instructed to shoot a missile into Saudi Arabia, Although the Saudis omitted mention of the incident, social media revealed that the Borkan, a Scud- type missile manufactured in Iran with a range of 800km, exploded at a Saudi military facility near the town of Mazahimiyah, 40km west of Riyadh.
US Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis remained cool: “I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time,” he said. “That’s not in the cards right now. We always have the capability to do so, but right now I don’t think it’s necessary.”
The general impression gained this week by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources was that, while the top men in Washington and Tehran were breathing fire, their senior advisers were at work to stanch the flames.
Both the Trump administration and the ayatollahs in Tehran were careful not to tip their feud over the brink – at least not until they determined what side Moscow would take in the event of a descent into full-blown combat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could if he wanted act to cool tempers, or even try his hand at discreet peacemaking through diplomatic back-channels. But he is staying out of it, although Kremlin officials found time for a mild rebuke of US officials’ remarks.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, Feb. 6, that the Kremlin does not agree with US President Donald Trump that Iran is a terrorist state. “It’s not a secret,” he said,” that Moscow and Washington’s views on many international issues are diametrically opposed. However, he also said, “Russia and the US should continue building a mutually beneficial relationship, despite their differences.”
Moscow understands that Trump has gone against Iran as far as he intends for the moment, and is not on the verge of military steps. His sanctions against 25 Iranian individuals and entities were not a setback for Iran’s economy – or even its ballistic missile program. Boeing’s $16 billion civilian aircraft deal with Iran was not cancelled.
The White House has understood that a return to the full sanctions regime is not on; Russia, China and the European Union would not go along with it. A US embargo would be ineffective, after the International Atomic Agency in Vienna certified that Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement with the 5+1 group and its missile program and tests are not in violation of this agreement.
The Russians have noted that Tehran, too, is keeping its provocations over America’s horizon.
So long as the row between the Trump administration and Tehran is essentially a war of words, Putin will bide his time to see what develops.

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