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Heightened tensions between Iran’s supreme leader and the US

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) undoubtedly knew that US President Donald Trump was not going to be the same as his predecessor Barack Obama regarding Iran and the Middle East. Trump made his policy on Iran crystal clear throughout his election campaign, when he repeatedly argued for a tougher position against Tehran and its military adventurism. The policies of Trump and his advisers also highlighted the administration’s desire to restore and strengthen relationships with traditional US allies in the Middle East. This raises the million-dollar question: Even though Iranian leaders knew it would be extremely provocative to the US and the Trump administration to test-fire a ballistic missile, why did they go through with it, thereby igniting a new era of increased tensions? The first reason is inspired by the desire of Iranian leaders, particularly the hard-liners  who have the final say in foreign and domestic policies  to restore their level of hostility with the US.

Bilateral relations were getting much closer than KhameneError! Not a valid embedded object.i and IRGC leaders were comfortable with. It is worth noting that he previously gave the green light to the moderates (including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif) to begin a partial rapprochement with the US to ease the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) four rounds of economic sanctions. Since the ruling clerics’ hold on power was in danger, Iran’s international legitimacy and revenues needed a boost, which could be facilitated by investing in trade and re-joining the global financial system. After the sanctions were lifted and Iran secured many business deals with Asian and European nations, Khamenei has now made a tactical shift to restore his hostility with the US and maintain the classic image he and his social base have portrayed of it as the “Great Satan.”  In other words, Khamenei and the IRGC needed sanctions relief, but they also wanted to keep the US as their enemy. By escalating tensions, Khamenei is using the opportunity to preserve his parochial and political interests, as well as increase his legitimacy, by shoring up his hard-line power base. He sees the tensions as a partial political victory; he recently told a group of military commanders:

“We are thankful to (Trump) for making our life easy as he showed the real face of America.” Khamenei is also buttressing the argument Tehran has been making for over 30 years, that the US is Iran’s foremost enemy and no one should trust it. In addition, by blaming the US he is projecting the idea that he has been vindicated. From his perspective, maintaining hostility with it preserves a core pillar of his policy and ensures his hold on power. The second reason behind Iran’s provocation is that its leaders are trying to examine Trump’s boundaries. First, Tehran test-fired a ballistic missile, raising concerns about its compliance with UNSC Resolution 2231, which “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

When the Trump administration assumed office, Iranian leaders had a priceless opportunity to turn over a new leaf and demonstrate they are willing to be respectful and constructive members of the international community. Iran carried out the test despite being previously warned by the US, the UNSC and other powers that it should refrain from engaging in activities linked to its ballistic missile program. After the Trump administration imposed limited sanctions on some individuals and companies linked to Iran’s ballistic program, Tehran pushed the boundaries more. It held a military exercise that included test-firing missiles, utilizing radar systems, command-and-control centers and cyber-warfare systems.

Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC’s aerospace division, said: “If we see the smallest misstep from the enemies, our roaring missiles will fall on their heads.” Gen. Hossein Dehghan was quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency as saying: “The recent missile test is in line with our plans.”  On Wednesday, Iran launched another missile. The third reason behind Iran’s choices is about projecting regional power. A fourth reason is to send a strong message to state and non-state actors, as well as to Iranians, that it will not moderate its behavior or alter the core pillars of its revolutionary and foreign policies.

When the Trump administration assumed office, Iranian leaders had a priceless opportunity to turn over a new leaf and demonstrate they are willing to be respectful and constructive members of the international community, and are ready to resolve regional conflicts.  In other words, by acting rationally and avoiding tensions from the outset, Iran had a great opportunity to influence and shape Trump administration policy. However, Iran decided to return to what it feels comfortable with: Hostility with the US. What Iranian leaders have not yet recognized, but should be cautious about, is that the Trump administration might not be a classic US administration with which they are familiar.

‘Courtesy Arab News’.

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