It is hard to believe that President Donald Trump and his senior advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, did not have a Plan B ready to go should harsh sanctions fail to bring the Iranian regime to heel and to the table for a revised nuclear pact. At the Hanoi summit between Trump and the North Korean ruler Kim Jong un, it was evident that sanctions would not work as the sole item in the US foreign policy toolbox against Pyongyang – any more than against Beijing or Moscow. The hope that Tehran would bow low to buy sanctions relief was always a non-starter, and, given the radical, inflexible nature of the Islamic Revolutionary rulers, may even prove counterproductive.
On May 15, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid out the regime’s game plan, in a non-headline-making comment, when he said that there would be no war between Iran and the US, because “The Iranian nation has chosen the path of resistance.” For this pointer to his next steps, the Iranian leader borrowed a term used by Palestinian extremists and their allies to coat their campaign of terror with a noble and moral aspect. “Resistance” has long covered the malign tactics which the Iranian regime regularly employs in pursuit of its goals. Its Lebanese minion, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah, often bandies the term “resistance” in his frequent declarations of war on the Zionist enemy.
In Washington, there was no foundation to the reports carried in this week’s media of a rift in the administration between factions calling for war now, in response to Iran’s disruptions of Gulf oil vessels and infrastructure, and President Trump, who opposes a full-scale war. That is not the issue. Even hawks like Bolton and Pompeo are not in favor of a comprehensive war on Iran. The argument is between those, including the president, who favor Washington’s non-response to Iranian disruptions, and proponents of an American response, which they argue is mandatory, lest Tehran assume it can get away with more and escalated provocations.
Having ruled out full-scale war, the White House is considering a pinpointed operation against a certain Iranian nuclear facility, one that is tied to Iran’s partial withdrawal from the nuclear pact signed with six world powers in 2015. For instance, Tehran has announced it has gone back to topping up its enriched uranium stocks and heavy water; and is planning to renew the operation of its Arak plutonium plant. A US attack could single out and halt the operation of any of those facilities.
It is hard to estimate how Tehran would respond to a one-off blow of this kind. It may well result in an Iranian or surrogate assault on an American or pro-American target in the Gulf, Iraq or Syria. Even that would not necessarily trigger a full-scale war between the US and Iran.
The new Revolutionary Guards commander, Maj.-Gen Hossein Salami, appeared to think otherwise, when he said onWednesday, May 15, “We are on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy,” he said. “This moment in history, because the enemy has stepped into the field of confrontation with us with all possible capacity, is the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution.”
Khamenei may have elevated Salami to this high command due to his talent for bellicose rhetoric. However, Salami did not name the United States as “the enemy” and, moreover, it is the supreme ruler who calls the shots in Tehran. The way Khamenei has tipped the scales so far caused this week to end with Iran having the last word in the contest, rather than American sanctions. As time goes by without US pushback, Tehran will exploit this non-response to pursue its pre-set roster of operations against targets linked to US interests in the region. Washington also risks losing face with its allies in the region.