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Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia: An attempt to dodge a domestic nightmare?

Written By | Sep 26, 2019
Iranian attack, Khameni, Saudi

Cartoon by Branco. Reproduced with permission and by arrangement with Comically Incorrect. (See link in article.)*

WASHINGTON — In yet another high stakes adventure, most international intelligence sources agree that the Iranian mullahs’ regime, led by Ali Khamenei, staged the recent attack on two Saudi Arabian Aramco oil facilities. This carefully targeted Iranian attack has had far-reaching repercussions and consequences. Worse, it once again heightens the sense of crisis across the Middle East’s most sensitive regions, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Questions raised by the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities

This latest provocation by Iran raises many puzzling questions. Among them are recent signs Khamenei and the mullahs may be open to some negotiations involving economic benefits to their beleaguered regime. If so, however, why did Iran deliberately torpedo any positive, behind-the-scenes progress by launching this devastating attack on two major Saudi oil facilities?

Directly after the attack became public knowledge, the Iranian regime initially portrayed the attack as caused by drones launched by Yemen’s Iran-supporte Houthi rebels. As if to back this up, the Houthis themselves claimed responsibility for the attack almost immediately.

Even so, no one doubted that the attack on Saudi Arabia at the very least had the Iranian regime’s backing. But the story soon began to change. Reports from US intelligence sources indicated the attacks were likely caused by sophisticated missiles launched from Iran. Following the attack, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei almost immediately insisted that no talks with the United States would take place.

Yet somewhat earlier, in an article on an Iranian Diplomacy site close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Iran’s ambassador to China had claimed that to deal with the current crisis between Washington and Tehran, no more than two options were possible: War or negotiations.

Saudi, Iranian attack, Khamenei, bombing attacks, Saudi oil facilities

Immediate aftermath of 091419 attack on major Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Video still from VOA feed via YouTube. US government footage, presumably in the public domain.

Both Trump and Ali Khamenei have repeatedly claimed they do not want war.

With elections approaching, President Trump seems more averse than ever to solving this bilateral conflict through war or even through a limited conflict. Given the explosive domestic politics of Iran, Khamenei, too, strongly wishes to avoid war. Two-thirds of Iran’s population lives below the poverty line. Renewed US sanctions on Iran are making the situation steadily worse. The already growing army of  hungry and unemployed Iranians, primarily consisting of women and young people, has in many ways transformed Iranian society into a powderkeg just waiting for a match.

The only way to relieve this pressure on the Iranian economy is to negotiate with America and its allies. So the question is, why doesn’t Khamenei accept the inevitability of negotiations to solve the problem?  In the face of his intransigence, the US continues to increase the pressure with more sanctions. Tuesday, three key European allies — the UK, France and Germany — finally lined up behind the American position.  Apparently, the window is closing fast on any chance for negotiations.

For Ali Khamenei, negotiating with the Trump administration is “poisonous”

Khamenei has claimed that negotiations with the US are poisonous to him. Worse, negotiations with the current Trump-led US government are doubly poisonous. While acknowledging that there exists a willingness to negotiate at least in some segments of the regime, the state-run “World of Industry” (jahan-e-Saaat) newspaper added a caveat.

“Such a tendency and willingness faces obstacles and limitations that seem to minimize the chances of negotiations although not to zero.”

Springing as it does from religious dogmas dating back to the Middle Ages, the mullahs’ regime has long proved unable to meet even the most basic economic, political, and cultural needs of the Iranian people. From its inception, the regime has always used repression to control its people, while creating successive regional crises or military intervention to destablize the surrounding region.

Backed by its hallmark slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” the mullah’s regime has armed backward religious groups and created its own militias inside and outside Iran. The constant objective: to conduct repression inside Iran while exporting terrorism in the region and around the world. These were and still are the twin pillars of the clerical regime of Velâyat-e Faqih. That is an ancient Shiite theory holding that Islam gives a faqīh (Islamic jurist) custodianship over its people.

Remember the Iranian Revolution and the US Embassy takeover

Under this theory, the Iranian regime, through its anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli dogma, eliminated many of the forces that wanted progress in Iran.

At the time it occurred, the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran was provided a rationale for the mullahs to “free” the country from “internal crises.”  In other words, opposition driven by progressive forces. These included the left-wing MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin). Counter-revolutionaries attempted to mobilize Iranian citizens to support fundamental freedoms lost during the reign of the deposed Shah.

Iran hostage crisis – Iraninan students comes up U.S. embassy in Tehran. Image via Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Over time, the mullahs eroded, repressed or murdered their opponents. In so doing, they minimized this opposition. That  paved the way toward the regime’s ultimate power, enforced by its Revolutionary Guards. As such, they are not about to give up what they have gained. And that is why it is “poisonous” for Khamenei to negotiate with the United States.

Even worse, talking to an American nationalist like Donald Trump is double poison for Khamenei.

The changing conditions between the US and Iran

Khamenei agreed to negotiate with the United States before the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was struck. The JCPOA is the nuclear deal the mullahs agreed to. Signatories included Barack Obama, China, France, Russia, Germany and the EU. But the US Senate never ratified the agreement. And now conditions have changed dramatically.

During the Obama presidency, the dominant policy of the West with Iran was a policy of appeasement. Having determined that Iran was not observing the terms of that agreement, the Trump administration unilaterally terminated it. Now, the US policy toward Iran involves exerting maximum pressure on the country. The aim is to force the regime to abandon its missile program. Similarly, the regime would need to abandon its violent interference in the countries in its region.

For Khamenei, to do so amounts to capitulation. So under these circumstances, negotiating with the US, in Khamenei’s words, “is that the United States say and we implement. This is the meaning of negotiations in the current situation.”

Worse, under these circumstances, if the Iranian regime responds to the demands of the United States – namely, to abstain from intervening in the countries of the region and refrain from developing ballistic missiles – it would mean abandoning the two pillars upon which the Velâyat-e Faqih regime has been based. That would require the regime to respond to all the suppressed demands of the Iranian people. Such a response would inevitably lead to the nightmare of overthrow.

Iran actually faces a severe internal dilemma: An ongoing revolt against the mullahs’ regime

When considering the reasons behind the Iranian attack on the Saudis, we must ponder the critical internal dilemmas facing this regime. We must consider the longer-term stalemate in which the mullahs finds themselves mired. The global political isolation caused by renewed and augmented international sanctions increasingly presses upon the regime’s economy.

More importantly, the expansion of MEK resistance units led by Maryam Rajavi constitutes a grave threat to the mullahs.

According to the US Foundation for Liberty website, “Maryam Rajavi was elected as Iran’s future President for the transitional period following the overthrow of the religious dictatorship ruling Iran by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in August 1993. The NCRI is a coalition of democratic Iranian groups and personalities committed to a secular, non-nuclear republic in Iran.” Rajavi is currently based in Paris.

What troubles the regime is the widespread acceptance by Iranian youth and women of this Muslim woman. She has challenged the Iranian regime, placing the nightmare of regime change before them. Obviously, they intend to resist this at all costs.

Tehran Grand Bazaar strikes and protests to the economic situation, June 25, 2018. Fars News Agency, CC 4.0 license, via Wikipedia.

Containing the MEK and the Iranian people’s desire for regime change

Maryam Rajavi is said to have captured the streets after protests in 160 cities in early 2018. By raising the specter of external threats by attacking Saudi Arabia, the mullahs’ regime intends to gain the upper hand in any potential negotiations. Additionally, they wish to blunt the effect of Rajavi’s continuing effort to defeat their regime. Deflecting domestic and international attention could help this effort. And creating an international military threat is a classic way for a failing regime to change the argument.

Beginning with the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, the mullahs desired to create an international crisis. One potential aim: to help defeat the Trump Administration. They clearly remember how their original revolution contributed to the defeat of the Carter Administration in 1980. That could possibly shift the Washington-Tehran negotiations back to the spirit of the 2015 “5 + 1” (JCPOA) talks. And that, in turn, could possibly allow the current regime to limit the internal consequences of any new agreement.

— Headline image: Cartoon by Branco. Reproduced with permission and by arrangement with Comically Incorrect



Hamid Enayat

Hamid Enayat is an independent Iranian political analyst and writer based in Europe.