Tensions in the Arab Gulf have experienced a sharp spike over the past months. Terrorist and proxy militia attacks, directed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, have targeted energy transmission infrastructure via the bombing of pipelines in Saudi Arabia, international oil tankers (belonging to Japan, Norway, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) in the UAE, while naval mines have damaged other tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia (re: Abha’s civilian airport) has also been repeatedly struck. A US reconnoissance drone was then downed by Iranian air defences—forcing Washington to adopt a more assertive strategy in the region.
Events on the ground have generated a lively, if misguided, debate about the US strategy of applying maximum pressure on Tehran in order to force it to end its support to terrorist groups throughout the region, scale back its ballistic missile production (and transfer to terrorist groups) and to fully abandon its nuclear ambitions. Some suggest that Washington’s withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, re: Iran nuclear deal) coupled with President Donald Trump’s abrasive rhetoric is the main reason for renewed tensions. This assumption is patently wrong.
Tehran harbours grand objectives of regional hegemony. It seeks to dominate the geopolitical and religious landscape through a spiderweb of asymmetrical power platforms — re: Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — to spread chaos into the established order. To manage its rise, and underwrite its religious credentials, Revolutionary Iran requires regime survival and continuity. The Imamate system of Ayatollahs — grand and minor — the Supreme Leader and the Guardianship Council all find comfort and safety in the yoke of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The office of the president and ministers of the cabinet are political facades. Decisions of national importance are only taken by the institutional trio— Ayatollah, Council, Guards.
The spate of Iranian operations against its neighbours is the result of a fundamental change to the security machinery in the country. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decision to promote Major General Hossain Salami to Commander in Chief of the IRGC — replacing Mohammad Ali Jafari, who led the IRGC since September 2007 — is producing wide-ranging repercussions. Salami owes his para-military career to Khamenei and his appointment further strengthens the Ayatollah’s ability to navigate the Islamic Republic’s internal and foreign policies and to make the crucial decision over his own succession. It is widely understood that Ayatollah Khamenei favours his son’s accession. Mojtaba Khamenei is a cleric from the Qom school. He is also the commander of the regime’s crack forces, the Basij militia. Mojtaba Khamenei and Hossain Salami are dear friends and given the pending death of Ali Khamenei and the subsequent, delicate, transition from Ayatollah to Ayatollah, Salami is placed to ensure that the will of Khamenei is respected and that his friend, Mojtaba, assumes the throne.
Salami is in the process of consolidating his position. His provocations are calculated. Two weeks after the US designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, and shortly before the halting of sanctions waivers on Iranian oil, Salami’s tactics were driven by Iran’s thirst for revenge and his manipulation of chaos. He sparked a crisis and then tried to bind the hands of the US by spreading disinformation. He physically attacked Saudi Arabia and the UAE and then played dumb. His behaviour is warding-off domestic opponents as he champions Iranian hyper-nationalism and peddles a rally-around-the-flag.
More importantly, Salami’s tactics have driven a nail in the transatlantic relationship. US-European relations are being defined by Iran as Tehran has slithered its way into Western security discourses. This has exposed the fact that far too many European decision makers are paralysed with fear of abandoning the JCPOA. They fear the wrath of their business communities and they fear the Ayatollah’s faithful who have grown comfortable engaging in terrorist operations across Europe—Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK (etc.). This fear is exposing Europe and European citizens to greater risks. Looking for loopholes, finding ways to circumvent US sanctions, funding the IRGC through business ventures in Iran will ensure that the transatlantic relationship remains frayed into the future. Beyond Trump and Macron, Merkel, May or Conte, at the heart of the NATO alliance rests the singular notion of solidarity. Iran’s blatant mockery of everything NATO (and even the EU) stands for should have Washington’s allies circling the wagons and pushing back against the Ayatollah’s regime. It is a sad commentary that Salami’s tactics are doing the opposite, polarising the Western alliance so that the Ayatollah can get away with murder.