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Why are the Iranians playing with fire?


What interest could the Iranians have in carrying out attacks in the Gulf of Oman and risking a war with the United States, at the time when a process to ease the current tensions (via the new Japanese mediator) is beginning to develop? The question has been on everybody’s mind, as Tehran presently stands accused by Washington of being behind last Thursday's attack on Japanese and Norwegian tankers sailing near the Strait of Hormuz. The timing, as well as the details emerging surrounding the operation, have given rise to doubts, reinforced by a quasi-natural mistrust towards the actions of Uncle Sam in the Middle East.

Can we believe the American version after the falsehoods that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and while the warmongers in the Trump administration are just spoiling for a fight with the Iranian regime?

All these questions are legitimate. However, they must not make us lose sight of the current situation that faces Iran and how and why it might act this way.

The Islamic Republic is asphyxiated by the American economic sanctions. "Iranians export 400 thousand barrels of oil per day against 2.5 million barrels a year ago," said a Western diplomatic source who wished to remain anonymous. That is approximately 6 times less, and their economy relies heavily on oil. A person being strangled will struggle by all means possible. This is what Tehran seems to be doing. It cannot afford to be harmed by the United States without exacting a cost. "The pot is boiling and Iran will not allow [itself] to be pushed around this way and remain passive" confirms the source.

The stability of the regime is at stake. The longer the sanctions last, the greater the risk that discontent among the people will increase, especially as the current shortage of select products could become widespread.

"Not convinced that the US wants war"

The Iranian regime cannot afford a direct confrontation with the United States. It has no clear allies on the international scene and its army is not strong enough to resist the world's leading power. Despite its bellicose rhetoric, the Islamic Republic does not want a war with the Americans, a war which the regime would probably not survive. But Iran seems determined to take advantage of what it sees as a little room for maneuver in order to show the United States that the entire of the Middle East will pay the price of their anti-Iranian policy. "Confronting the United States is obviously suicidal, but as the Iranian deep state is not at all convinced that the USA wants war, it’s playing its cards to its benefit" adds the diplomatic source.

The Trump administration gives the impression of being unorganized and unpredictable on the international scene. The Iranians have certainly closely watched the evolution of the US’s relations with North Korea , noting that Donald Trump praised his "friend" Kim Jong-un a few months after threatening to destroy North Korea and without having secured anything concrete from the North Korean leader. They had to draw at least two conclusions. One: the American president’s bark is worse than his bite. Two: it is better to have nuclear weapons in order to negotiate with the Americans. "The Iranians have all these plans in mind," notes our source.

Iran's leaders have increased their threats against US interests in recent months. However, they have allowed some uncertainty to hover about in regard to who recently launched a number of attacks. The result is clear, everything points to Iran, but not enough so as to remove all doubts and cause unanimous condemnation from the international community. "The Iranians will maintain permanent pressure. They can go even further, we are not at the breaking point, "confided the diplomatic source before the events of Thursday.

Tehran has two weapons that can spark things off across the region: its proxies and its missiles. But the leadership seems to be playing its cards very cautiously. Conducting an operation on the Lebanese and / or Syrian soil through Hezbollah would result in an immediate and perhaps disproportionate response from the Israelis. The Gulf front is less risky. The Houthis are already at war with Saudi Arabia and Iran can launch missiles against the Kingdom without jeopardizing their own survival. The same goes for operations in the waters of the Gulf; any action here will send a very clear message, without constituting a casus belli for the Americans.

Iran is carrying an olive branch in one hand and a stick in the other. It is implying that negotiations are possible, but that they will take place without any preconditions. However, the Iranian game is extremely dangerous, especially when maneuvering against a president who, though he does not want a war, has shown his unpredictable character and personality in the past. "There are two cars currently driving towards the cliff, and each one is convinced that it has good brakes," says the diplomatic source.

(This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th of June)

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