Iran Blows Hot and Cold as Sanctions Take Effect

There seems to be no evidence of any rational, coherent, cogent or well-thought-out strategy chalked out by Iran to counter the US sanctions, the first phase of which are already in force and has had the most visible effect on its nascent automobile industry which Tehran was contemplating would lead to a good export market.

But to chalk out a strategy you need to have what is called a think tank. Does Iran have one? Yes. And it’s a one-man think tank called Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected self-styled Supreme Leader who has a history of ticking off every successive Iranian president whether it was the most liberal and level-headed Mohammad Khatami or his personal stooge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was brought in after subverting the ballot.

The current incumbent Hassan Rouhani has as much voice as a squeaking mouse. The presidents – who have little role beyond ceremonial appearances at home and abroad – do not count for Khamenei and those below the president do not even exist.

It is not surprising therefore that every rebuttal, reaction and rebuke in answer to US President Donald Trump’s thunder comes only from Khamenei. Khamenei has been unable to widen his linguistic repertoire down the decades. His reactions to anything negative coming from the direction of America boil down to a handful of stale savouries. He always starts with ‘Death to America’ and moves on to those laced with words like ‘lion’, ‘hell’, ‘blood’, ‘sunk’, ‘destroyed’, ‘burnt’ and ‘finished.’ These all appear in his dismissive and colourful pronouncements in a sing-song fashion sounding almost like Persian couplets being recited on a broken record.

mohammed zarif.
Mohammed Zarif.

But the sanctions do seem to have rattled Khamenei. This is evident from an interview Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif gave to Iran Daily last week. In that interview, Zarif said that Iran was keen to restore diplomatic ties and improve relations with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He certainly couldn’t have opened his mouth without a nod from Khamenei.

But coming as this statement does on the heels of Khamenei’s summary, forceful and angry dismissal of Trump’s talks offer, it is patently not meant for the eyes and ears of any of the three countries mentioned; it is meant for the eyes of the American policy-makers. To imply that Iran is a good boy and wants peace and harmony in the Gulf, where the US has the highest economic stakes in the region.

As it is, Zarif’s radical statement has made no headlines in Arab newspapers, created no ripples, and must have sprung a surprise even on the decision-makers in those three nations. Zarif, a nobody in the Iranian power structure, holding out the olive branch to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE makes little sense, more so given Iran’s history of close political and economic relations with Qatar and the support and succour provided to it once those countries had declared Doha a pariah more than a year ago.

Iran has tried to effect – single-handedly and in cooperation with Qatar – a regime change in Bahrain and continues to fund its anti-government cells; it has been occupying the UAE’s three islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs for close to half a century; it has countenanced deadly arson attacks on Saudi missions in Iran. Does a little-known politician’s one-liner solve these longstanding issues?

Khamenei knows his bluster will not work this time nor any fake peace overture like the one offered by Zarif. If at all, it’ll be saved by the perverse power equations between Trump and the rest of the signatories to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran who are reluctant to let go of it. In fact, two of the big nations in the deal i. e. Russia and China have signified by their silence on repeated Trump statements – now threatening, now cajoling – that they do not mean to change their stance.

The third big saviour of Khamenei could turn out to be India, another big nation close to its shores though it was never a signatory to the deal which is currently giving Khamenei a splitting headache.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.