Iran will be tempted to at­tack Gulf states again to di­vert at­ten­tion from its woes

The National - News - - OPINION - CON COUGH­LIN Con Cough­lin is the Tele­graph’s de­fence and foreign af­fairs ed­i­tor

As fresh ev­i­dence emerges of Ira­nian in­volve­ment in Septem­ber’s dev­as­tat­ing at­tack on Saudi Ara­bia’s Aramco oil in­fra­struc­ture, there is a grow­ing con­sen­sus among mil­i­tary com­man­ders that Tehran could be plan­ning fur­ther at­tacks.

The re­cent up­surge in Ira­nian acts of ag­gres­sion in the Gulf was one of the dom­i­nant themes at the re­cent Manama Di­a­logue se­cu­rity con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies.

Gulf lead­ers in par­tic­u­lar were keen to stress the need not to give in to Iran’s bul­ly­ing tac­tics, with Saudi Min­is­ter of State for Foreign Af­fairs Adel Al Jubeir warn­ing in a speech to the con­fer­ence that it was im­por­tant world pow­ers did not try to ap­pease Tehran. “Ap­pease­ment did not work with Hitler. It will not work with the Ira­nian regime,” he warned.

The ro­bust po­si­tion be­ing adopted by Gulf lead­ers to defend their in­ter­ests has led to Kuwait and Qatar an­nounc­ing that they are to join the US-led mar­itime coali­tion that aims to pro­tect mer­chant ship­ping in the Ara­bian Gulf.

The In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Se­cu­rity Con­struct, as it is known, was set up in Bahrain in the sum­mer in re­sponse to a num­ber of Ira­nian acts of ag­gres­sion in the Gulf, in­clud­ing the shoot­ing down of a US Navy drone and the hijacking of the Bri­tish-reg­is­tered oil tanker

Stena Im­pero. Ef­forts to pro­vide en­hanced se­cu­rity in the Gulf come at a time when the top US general in the re­gion is warn­ing that the threat from Iran con­tin­ues to rise, and that there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity Tehran will seek to en­gage in fur­ther hos­tile acts against its Gulf neigh­bours and their al­lies.

“I think the strike on Saudi Aramco in Septem­ber is pretty in­dica­tive of a na­tion that is be­hav­ing ir­re­spon­si­bly,” said Gen Ken­neth McKen­zie, the com­man­der of US Cen­tral Com­mand, at the Manama Di­a­logue. “My judg­ment is that it is very pos­si­ble they will at­tack again.”

Since May, the Pen­tagon has dis­patched 14,000 ad­di­tional troops, an air­craft car­rier bat­tle group, and tens of thou­sands of pounds of mil­i­tary equip­ment to the Mid­dle East to re­spond to the Ira­nian threat.

But with the Ira­nian regime un­der in­tense do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal pressure be­cause of the dis­as­trous state of the coun­try’s econ­omy, its lead­ers will be tempted to en­gage in fur­ther acts of ag­gres­sion as a means of di­vert­ing at­ten­tion away from their tra­vails.

Cer­tainly one of the more strik­ing fea­tures of the de­tailed re­port com­piled by Reuters news agency into the Aramco at­tack – one of the most com­pre­hen­sive ac­counts of Iran’s in­volve­ment pub­lished to date – is the claim that the as­sault was per­son­ally com­mis­sioned by Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as a means of re­spond­ing to the US sanc­tions.

De­spite Tehran’s ini­tial in­sis­tence that the Ira­nian econ­omy would not be ad­versely af­fected by US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the nu­clear deal last year and im­pose a fresh round of sanc­tions, the re­al­ity has been very dif­fer­ent as the regime has seen a dis­as­trous run on the rial, with in­fla­tion cur­rently run­ning at around 40 per cent, caus­ing sharp price rises in ba­sic sta­ples such as meat and veg­eta­bles.

Pub­lic dis­con­tent with the gov­ern­ment’s stew­ard­ship of the econ­omy has been run­ning high for nearly a year, cul­mi­nat­ing in the lat­est na­tion­wide protests over the re­cent hike in fuel prices.

The protests and sub­se­quent crack­down are thought to have led to more than 200 deaths and about 7,000 ar­rests. Regime loy­al­ists be­lieve the best way of re­spond­ing to in­ter­nal pressure is to en­gage in ac­tion fur­ther afield, thought to be a key fac­tor in Iran’s de­ci­sion to tar­get the Aramco fa­cil­i­ties.

Plan­ning for the at­tack is said to have orig­i­nated at a meet­ing that took place in May in a heav­ily for­ti­fied com­pound in Tehran, which was at­tended by se­nior com­man­ders from the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps. The main topic on the agenda was how to pun­ish the US for with­draw­ing from the nu­clear deal and im­pos­ing fresh sanc­tions.

The mood of the meet­ing was summed up by one com­man­der, who de­clared: “It is time to take out our swords and teach them a les­son.”

Ini­tially IRGC com­man­ders raised the pos­si­bil­ity of at­tack­ing high-value tar­gets in the re­gion such as Amer­i­can mil­i­tary bases.

But this no­tion was even­tu­ally dis­counted over con­cerns that such an at­tack would pro­voke a dev­as­tat­ing re­sponse from the US and its al­lies. Con­se­quently Ira­nian com­man­ders were keen to find a tar­get that would not lead to a di­rect con­fronta­tion, with the re­sult that the de­ci­sion was taken to at­tack the oil fa­cil­i­ties of Wash­ing­ton’s close ally, Saudi Ara­bia.

Iran’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid a con­fronta­tion with the US can be seen in the sug­ges­tion made in the Reuters re­port that Mr Khamenei coun­selled that he would only grant his ap­proval on the con­di­tion that Ira­nian forces took mea­sures to avoid hit­ting any civil­ians or Amer­i­cans.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials, who have dis­missed the find­ings of the re­port, con­tinue to deny their coun­try’s in­volve­ment, even though both the Saudis and US be­lieve Tehran was re­spon­si­ble, with US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo con­demn­ing it as “an act of war”.

But Wash­ing­ton’s fail­ure to re­spond mil­i­tar­ily to ei­ther the Aramco at­tack or other acts of Ira­nian ag­gres­sion in the Gulf has led many mil­i­tary com­man­ders to con­clude that there is a strong like­li­hood Iran will un­der­take fur­ther at­tacks in the com­ing months.

The big risk for Tehran in main­tain­ing this pol­icy of ag­gres­sion in the re­gion is that any mis­cal­cu­la­tion could re­sult in a ma­jor es­ca­la­tion of hos­til­i­ties with the US and its al­lies.

Regime loy­al­ists be­lieve the best way to re­spond to in­ter­nal pres­sures is to en­gage in ac­tion fur­ther afield


Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei

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