Iran and the U.S. were on a collision course as soon as President Donald Trump arrived at the White House in January 2017. The U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. The Iranians, desperate to regain some leverage and break the back of the sanction regime, countered from May 2019 on with a series of actions, including hit-and-run attacks on vessels in and around the Persian Gulf, shooting down a U.S. drone in June, and daring and unprecedented missile attacks on two Saudi oil facilities in September. The cycle of escalation was a high-risk strategy for both sides. The Trump administration, unwilling to ease up on its “maximum pressure” campaign until Tehran came to the table to negotiate comprehensively about the issues of concern to the U.S., opted to put Iran on notice.
It did so on Jan. 3 when the U.S. assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and the face and mastermind of the Islamic Republic’s regional ideological expansionist project. Tehran was shell-shocked, and it is still too early to judge the impact of Soleimani’s assassination. What is certain, however, is that the Trump White House, unlike any U.S. administration before it, has for better or worse taken the fight to the Iranian regime. Soleimani’s death comes at a time when the Islamic Republic is under immense popular pressure at home and in the region. It is above all a moment of reckoning for the bosses in the IRGC, who need to carefully calibrate their response in the weeks and months to come.
Tehran’s telling response to Soleimani’s assassination
Tehran is still busy figuring out how Soleimani could be killed in such a manner, and who in the region helped the Americans with the operation. There is also much speculation in Iran about what motivated Trump to do it at that particular time and place. But one thing is for sure: Trump’s unpredictability gave the Iranian regime a strong reason to act cautiously in its response, and they did so. On Jan. 7, the Iranians fired 16 ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq. The Iranians decided to tell the Iraqis to inform the Americans of the impending missile launch. On Jan. 8, President Trump gave a speech in which he basically said Iran had surrendered to the U.S. and that there will be no war. He could do so because there were no U.S. casualties. In fact, Trump gave the speech Tehran had hoped for.
To understand Iran’s calculations and where we stand at the moment, we have to look a few factors. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to prevent war with the U.S. at any cost. He also had to save face and even demonstrate some courage to his people and his supporters in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Firing missiles at bases housing American troops in Iraq achieved that even as it was roundly mocked by anti-regime Iranians as mere theatrics.
Ultimately, the missile strike was much more about consolidating the regime’s power at home than taking revenge. Khamenei and the IRGC saw in the death of Soleimani an opportunity to inject some popular legitimacy back into a regime that is otherwise very unpopular. This plan was working from Jan. 3, but the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner by the IRGC on Jan. 8 and the protests that followed have made Khamenei’s “nationalism” project much harder to implement. The Tehran regime’s initial lies about what happened to the Ukrainian flight have not only been hugely embarrassing but could soon prove to be a bigger mobilizing factor for the majority of Iranians in the opposition than Soleimani’s funeral was for the minority supporters of the Islamic Republic.
There is also a regional and Islamist ideological aspect to Iran’s retaliation. Its decision to fire missiles at the Americans in response to Soleimani’s killing was aimed at boosting its prestige in the region. This is the first time the U.S. military has come under such an attack and not responded in kind. The Iranian regime specifically mentioned a few countries, including the UAE, as future targets for Iran’s revenge if they continue to collaborate with the Americans. The mention of Dubai and Haifa by the Iranian media was surely aimed at causing panic in the UAE and Israel, and more generally at making regional leaders reconsider their Iran policies and support for Washington’s confronting Tehran.
And yet, Iranian apprehensions about being held responsible for their own actions, and those of their allies and proxies, were all too evident early on in this latest crisis. In the aftermath of the missile attacks by the IRGC, there was widespread speculation in the U.S. that the Iranians were not finished with their revenge. The expectation in Washington had been that Iran will ask its Iraqi Shi’a militias to attack U.S. troops and interests in Iraq. This has not happened so far in any significant way. In fact, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told American media that the U.S. intelligence services have information that suggests the Iranians have asked their Iraqi militia allies not to attack American targets in Iraq. If true, this suggest that the Iranians are very worried that the U.S. will carry out attacks in Iran should pro-Iran groups in Iraq attack U.S. targets there.
In other words, Iran wants to lower the temperature and return to the “controlled tensions” as before. It wants to play the long game and not take unnecessary risks for immediate results. Meanwhile, one key pro-Iran Iraqi militia leader, Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asaib Ahl-e Haq, made fun of the IRGC’s retaliation and said his group “would do much more than just send a few missiles” at the Americans. Khazali’s statement raises the question of how much control Iran has over some of the Shi’a Iraqi groups that have been close to Tehran. Since the U.S. will hold Tehran — and particularly the IRGC — responsible, any reckless actions by Iraqi Shi’a militias are now a real problem for Iran.
The IRGC’s domestic mission
The IRGC’s behavior and domestic agenda is under even greater scrutiny by the Iranian people. In the latest public protests in Tehran, one of the popular chants was “Revolutionary Guards is our ISIS.” The IRGC’s sense of its mission is a principal controversy in and of itself. On the one hand, its domestic detractors maintain that its highly partisan interventions in the political process run contrary to the principle of “non-intervention” of the armed forces in politics laid out in the “Political and Divine Testament” of the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As such, this view holds, the IRGC’s very public political activism represents one of the most significant challenges to the political character of the Islamic Republic itself.
On the other hand, in the worldview of the IRGC’s current senior leadership, any domestic or foreign challenge to the Shi’a Islamist order has to be confronted at all costs. But not all of the IRGC’s estimated 125,000 members feel the same way. Evidence of a strong reformist current in the lower ranks of the Guards first surfaced in the aftermath of the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections, when a majority of the rank and file reportedly backed reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami. Iran’s opposition groups have always attempted to exacerbate these divisions. Many of the public statements by opposition leaders and prominent voices — such as Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah, and other regime critics now in the diaspora — have been aimed at dividing political opinion within the IRGC.
These ongoing overtures are understandable. There are very few voices in the opposition, either inside Iran or in the diaspora, who argue for armed insurrection against the IRGC-backed, Khamenei-controlled Islamic Republic. Rather, the opposition is seeking to encourage defectors from the Guards to join the opposition. Defection in this context could mean non-compliance with orders from the higher ranks and should come about due to the attractiveness of the opposition’s political message rather than illusions that an armed struggle against the regime and its various military appendages can be won under the present circumstances. Still, while internal fissures have always existed in the ranks of the IRGC, the elite force has so far managed to avoid visible organizational disarray in its response to the opposition and American pressure.
Ayatollah Khamenei and in close policy coordination with the leadership of the IRGC has a simple blueprint to survive in the short term: Any anti-regime protest will be crushed. Meanwhile, any political change will be instigated from top-down and not bottom-up, meaning that Khamenei might accept the need for some changes, but the regime will not make overt concessions. Instead, his game plan is to merely make tactical changes to reduce built-up frustration in society while pretending the public anger and public protests are part of a foreign-led plot.
Another clear strategy of the Khamenei-IRGC circle is to present the Iranian people with a bad choice and a worse choice. The “bad choice” is that the Iranian people should be patient and accept the state of affairs since the country is essentially said to be in a war against the U.S. But, the Khamenei-IRGC camp claims, this will soon blow over and the Islamic Republic will survive. The “worse choice” is that foreign plots succeed and Iran becomes another Syria. In fact, the idea of a civil war and the “Syriazation” of Iran are increasingly the talking points of key regime officials.
Recent claims by Tehran to have confiscated U.S.-supplied weapons coming in from Iraq are part of this game plan. Khamenei and the IRGC are hoping that by invoking the specter of a “civil war” instigated by foreigners, they can demobilize a good part of the Iranian public. The regime’s calculation is simple. It knows that Iranians are angry with the state of affairs but fear the idea of civil war more than having to live with the Islamic Republic.
It seems, however, clear to everyone except Khamenei, the IRGC, and a small group of right-wing fanatics that the domestic situation in Iran is moving in the direction of unmanageability. The accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner has already become about much more than the failure of the Iranian military’s command and control. The incident, and the response to it, highlighted the fact that the Islamic Republic is drifting on autopilot.
The futile efforts by the top leadership to seek a way to cover up the incident for three days speak of a political system that is aloof and unaccountable. And yet, for the first time in a long time, the regime of Khamenei seems to be unsure about what to do. In Iranian media, particularly in the diaspora, the incident is likened to the Islamic Republic’s “Chernobyl moment.” In other words, the impact of this one incident will reverberate in the months to come and weaken the glue holding the system together and ultimately push it toward collapse. It is truly a moment of reckoning for the Islamic Republic.
Whether or not it will be the regime’s “Chernobyl moment” remains to be seen but some realities are irrefutable. Khamenei’s instinct so far has not been to engage in any discernible introspection. Instead, he has simply overseen the regime’s effort to do whatever is necessary to escape blame. Khamenei is no Gorbachev and is not yet ready or able to accept the inevitability of political reform. As a person and a political operator who has been at the heart of decision-making in Iran since 1979, he will settle for more repression and stay the course. It is a strategy doomed to eventually fail but the 80-year-old Khamenei believes he has no option but to persevere. And for now, it seems the bosses of the IRGC will accompany him on this risky path forward.
Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Photo by IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images