Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recently told state media in Tehran that they would reveal a new operation that would make Iranians who support the regime proud. It turned out the IRGC was bragging about taking over an oil tanker and taking it back to an Iranian port. The IRGC claimed they had outwitted the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But U.S. officials said the Iranian claim was “totally false and untrue.”
The Iranian antics come amid claims that nuclear deal talks will begin again on Nov. 29, just after Thanksgiving. In mid-October, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley had said patience is growing thin with Iran if it won’t return to discuss a deal with the U.S. about its nuclear program. This conjures up the 2015 discussion about the Iran deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and whether absence of a deal would mean “war.” During the lead-up to the 2015 deal, officials in the Obama administration told the media that a deal with Iran was the best way to avoid war.
The “deal or war” narrative has been central to the selling point about why there should be a new deal, or why the U.S. and other countries should spend time waiting for Iran to come to the bargaining table. The question that should be asked about this narrative is: What would a “war” look like and why is a “war” the opposite of having a deal?
The discussion about war with Iran is predicated on the concern that if Iran continues to enrich uranium it eventually will clash with Israel. The Israel Defense Forces drilled for the possibility of war over the first four days of November. The drill focused on the chances of Iranian-backed Hezbollah firing thousands of rockets. Other aspects of the drill included preparations for violence within Israel. At the same time, Israel has launched a new surveillance aerostat — basically, a giant blimp — near the northern border with Lebanon and Israel, and U.S. forces are doing joint training near Eilat, on the Red Sea.
While Israel has indicated there are “red lines” regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the question that should be asked is whether Iran would ever risk a war with the United States or Israel. So far, the evidence indicates that Iran prefers the kind of propaganda stunts the IRGC carried out in the Gulf of Oman — hijacking a tanker, but not fighting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. This is because Iran can’t risk a real, conventional war. Iran hasn’t fought a major war since the 1980s when it fought Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran’s government is poor and its regime is relatively weak under sanctions. The only real card that it holds is its nuclear blackmail, which it uses to score points diplomatically. It also arms dangerous proxies around the Middle East, in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Poverty kills 10,000 infants every year
Iran’s real strength, therefore, lies with its proxies, the militias that receive Iranian drones and missiles. Iran has used drones to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and targeted a tanker off the coast of Oman in July. These types of attacks give Iran plausible deniability. It never says it carried out the drone attacks. The U.S. has shown evidence of Iran’s role in Yemen, but trafficking parts for missiles or gyroscopes for drones isn’t exactly how a country prepares for a major conventional war.
Iran’s navy is small and its ships keep catching fire and sinking. Its infrastructure is beset by problems and its IRGC tends to do the job that the Iranian army should be doing. In short, Iran has outsourced war-making powers to the IRGC and proxies, none of whom are prepared for a major conflict. If Iran can’t afford a major conflict, then the chances that the lack of an Iranian nuclear deal could lead to “war” are reduced. What might happen is that absence of a deal would mean continued tensions in the region.
However, after the previous Iranian deal in 2015, there was increased Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The Houthis pushed to take over swaths of Yemen in 2015 and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq set up shop in Syria to transfer weapons in 2017 and 2018.
Deal or no deal, Iran will continue its malign activities. This won’t lead to a large, conventional war, but rather, more of the same proxy conflicts that the Middle East has weathered for decades.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever” and “Drone Wars.”