What Stands behind Iran’s War Threats?

, August 13, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 22

    Iranian map of Yemen and Bab el Mandeb

    Iranian map of Yemen and Bab el Mandeb

    • President Donald Trump was very proud at the beginning of July 2018 that since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Tehran leadership “is behaving differently.” According to Trump, Iran “is not the same country as it was before.” The president also tweeted on July 8, 2018, that Iran stopped hindering the movements of the U.S. fleet in the region of the Persian Gulf.1
    • “Tehran’s Hopes that the Rule of Yemen’s Ansar Allah (Houthi militia) over the Al-Mandeb Strait Will Fulfill the Threats of Senior Iranian Officials over the Strait” (Headline in Fars News Agency, which is identified with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard)
    • Deep concern is felt among Iranian citizens regarding the outbreak of war; Iran’s economic systems are crumbling at a faster pace than ever before. The people are asking, “Is this an Iranian rial or toilet paper?”

    Three days before President Trump’s Tweet, on July 5, 2018, his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani threatened for the first time that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. According to him, if Iran is not exporting oil, no other country can do so either. Rouhani, who was then visiting Switzerland and Austria, was speaking to Iranians who support his regime but are living in Switzerland. In a clear warning against the United States, he continued: “If Iranian oil does not reach more places around the world, other countries also won’t be able to export oil. If you are able to do so, try to see what the implications of your steps.”2

    Senior U.S. Treasury officials emphasized that Washington’s main efforts will be concentrated in August 2018 on bringing a halt to the export of Iranian oil. With the threat of further deterioration in Iran’s economic situation in November, Hassan Rouhani, elected for two terms under the slogan, “Hope and understanding,” was the first of Iran’s senior officials to issue the threat that Iran would block naval traffic through the Straits of Hormuz if Iran can’t export its oil. What he said in a veiled manner in Switzerland was repeated more openly two weeks later and immediately received the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei and senior officials of the Revolutionary Guard.

    Middle East Naval Chokepoints

    Middle East Naval Chokepoints (EIA)

    Rouhani intensified his tone, and at the annual conference of Iranian ambassadors from around the world, which took place on July 22, 2018, he stated that a war with Iran would be “the mother of all wars,” while peace with Iran would be “the mother of all peace agreements.” He warned the United States “not to play with a lion by its tail.” According to him, Iran is very serious about its threat that if it cannot export oil, no other country will be able to do so, either. He emphasized, “When we state our intentions, the West immediately thinks we only mean (closing) the Straits of Hormuz. But no. We have many channels, and the Straits of Hormuz is only one of them. It is the simplest (among all of the options available to Iran). The Americans really don’t understand what they are talking about.”3

    Hussein Sheik-al-Salam, the former advisor to Iran’s foreign minister, who recently served as an adviser to the parliamentary chairman, explained that Rouhani was referring to the option of closing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. According to Sheik-al-Salam, on July 23, 2018, when Rouhani” warned “not to play with a lion by its tail,” he meant that Iran could play a new game by setting the oil prices according to what could happen in Bab-el-Mandeb. According to the senior Iranian official, the coalition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not succeed “despite its many efforts” in taking the port of Al-Hudayda away from the Houthis in Yemen and the forces of Ansar Allah, the Houthi military wing, which rules the port. Sheik-al-Salam added that Ansar Allah has proven “a good ability to infiltrate into Saudi Arabia,” and even, “in recent days, drones have been sent into the skies over Riyadh, which hit a refinery belonging to the Saudi Aramco company.” According to Sheik-al-Salam, the Saudis admitted that a fire broke out in the refinery, but they gave no reason for it. The parliamentary aide continued to say that Ansar Allah’s new drone, the Samad, is a new weapon that can have a serious effect throughout the region because its range extends to any point in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. A senior Iranian official boasted that the Houthis’ new drone has “the potential to fulfill the threat that Hassan Rouhani spoke about.”4

    Saudi oil refinery going up in flames

    The Fars news agency, which identifies with the Iran Revolutionary Guard, showed on July 23, 2018, a Saudi oil refinery going up in flames “like a military ship” and boasted of the successes of Yemen’s Ansar Allah. The original picture was taken in 2015 and shows the Iranian Guards navy blowing up a wooden model of an aircraft carrier.5

    Two days after Hassan Rouhani issued his threats,  Gholam Hossein Gheybparvar, commander of Iran’s Basij force, accused the U.S president of cowardice, saying on July 24, 2018, that, “Iran will never abandon its revolutionary art… and it will reject the pressures of its enemies. Even though America wants to destroy Iran, Trump will not dare to do this.”

    Gen. Soleimani Threatens the United States

    At the same time, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, issued clear threats against U.S. forces in the area in a speech that he gave on July 25, 2018, in the city of Hamedan. He directed his message to President Trump, saying, “You are threatening us, the nation of those who love shihada [sacrifice, death by martyrdom]. We will be there, where you can’t even imagine. Come, we’re ready. If you begin the war, we will finish it… You know our strength in the area and our abilities in an asymmetrical war. We will act.” With clear threats regarding the Red Sea, Soleimani continued that the sea “will not be safe anymore while U.S. forces are found in the area.” According to him, “There’s no night when we, before going to sleep, don’t think about how to strike at you.” At the same time, while clearly expressing mockery and disdain toward the U.S. president, Soleimani said that “the threats of the gambler and cabaret owner (Trump) need to be directed toward me, as a soldier and commander of the Quds forces, and not (President Hassan) Rouhani…”

    On the day when Soleimani gave his speech, the newspaper Kayhan, which represents Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei hinted in a threatening headline that missiles would strike at the heart of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The newspaper apparently quoted the spokesman of the Ansar Allah force of the Houthis in Yemen. He approached international companies working in both countries and wrote to them, “The missiles are on the way. Vacate Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh.”6

    Threatening headline in the newspaper

    Threatening headline in the newspaper that represents Iranian leader: “Vacate Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh. The missiles are on the way.” Kayhan, July 25, 2018

    On the day of Soleimani’s speech and the threatening headline in Kayhan, a Saudi Arabian tanker was struck by a missile fired from the shores of Yemen when passing through the Strait of el-Mandeb.7 On the same day, the Houthis and the Iranians claimed that the Ansar Allah also fired a drone toward the airport of the United Arab Emirates. This was denied by the government of Abu Dhabi, but the Iranians and the Houthis continued to insist on a “military success” against the Arab coalition. The attacks on Saudi and UAE received much praise on Iran state media from the Iranian conservatives and other elements identifying with the Revolutionary Guard.

    The recent firing of missiles at Saudi ships and UAE territory underscores the importance of Houthi control over the islands at the opening of the Strait of el-Mandeb. The attacks emphasize the deeper understanding needed of Iran’s intentions for the future – which has now arrived. The president and commander of the al-Quds forces speak about their intentions openly and provoke President Trump and the members of the coalition with the United States.

    In an interview on July 28, 2018, with the Tasnim news agency, which identifies with the Revolutionary Guard, Yadollah Javani, political deputy of the command of the Revolutionary Guard, stated that “the Iranian threat is very believable indeed.” According to him, “If the Straits of Hormuz or the Strait of el-Mandeb are still safe; this comes from the will of the Iranian government. But if other elements endanger Iran’s interests, Iran will also use any opportunity and potential at its disposal to endanger their interests.”8

    With the threats from Iran’s president and the leaders of the Iran Revolutionary Guard against the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the security of the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb, many sources within Iran, alongside ordinary citizens, are expressing deep concern regarding the possibility of the outbreak of war. Many sources, out of the sensitivity stemming from the security situation of their country, do not allow themselves to criticize the recent statements of Hassan Rouhani and Qasem Soleimani openly. So, they used the opportunity of the publication of the threatening article in Kayhan to criticize the “provocative” headline and the editors of the newspaper. Among those critics is Mohammad Javad Haghshenas, a veteran journalist who identifies with the moderate stream and supports the leaders of the Green Movement, who are under house arrest. On Twitter, he wrote, “To beat the war drums, does not conform with Iran’s national interest or to the culture of the Iranian people.”9

    Anti-war hashtags have been trending in recent days, and many Iranians demand on social media that the leaders of Iran should stop provoking the U.S. president and should not cause a war for which the Iranian people will pay the heaviest price. An open letter written by a young Iranian to Qasem Soleimani stated that if the general wants to drag Iran into war, he should not rely on him to join any war. The daring missive became the most discussed subject on social media. Similarly, articles were published on important media outlets in Iran, especially in newspapers identifying with the reformists, with harsh and unusual criticism of President Hassan Rouhani, especially because of his responsibility for opening the recent war of threats between Iran and the United States.

    Open Criticism Appears

    Not only did prominent newspapers on the reformist scene, such as Shargh, criticize Rouhani on July 28, 2018, but even the Jomhouri e-Islami newspaper, considered as conservative-pragmatic, expressed wonder in its editorial on July 28, 2018, over President Rouhani’s statements. It emphasized that he was giving an unnecessary excuse to Trump and his administration and was effectively neglecting essential treatment to the Iranian economic situation. Rouhani’s irresponsible behavior, the paper charged, was causing further deterioration of economic conditions, speeding up the unprecedented decline in the value of the Iranian Rial.

    Similarly, the economic press in Iran emphasized that due to the threats issued for the first time by Hassan Rouhani on the region’s security, there has been a serious worsening of the economic situation of the country in general, as well as the livelihood of the citizens.

    Innocent citizens and economists in Iran knew that due to the new security situation and the fear of the outbreak of war, the prices of basic goods rose sharply, and at the same time, the continued devaluation of the Rial eroded the real income for ordinary citizens by 70 percent in last three months. The average wage, which used to be equivalent to around $300, has fallen to $100 and even less. Each dollar used to be worth 30,000 Rial, reached to 110,000; by mid-August, 2018. The price of an Emami, a central bank-minted gold coin weighing 8.13 grams, was 18 million Rials in January but in August 2018, the Emami price soared to 45 million Rials.10

    On July 25, 2018, the Iranian government changed the governor of the central bank in the hope that the new appointment would strengthen the value of the Rial. However, the effect of the appointment lasted only a few hours. Since then, there has been a dizzying deterioration in the value of the Rial, and as a result, there has been an unprecedented worsening of the economic situation.

    Iranian citizens are filming hundreds of demonstrations every day, along with protests, strikes, and calls against the regime, and posting the clips on social media. At the same time, thousands of oil and gas truck drivers and tanker operators throughout Iran have renewed their strikes. The drivers are protesting over the guarantees given by Iran’s leaders following the last truck strike several weeks ago. Not only were these not fulfilled, but also there has been an unprecedented deterioration in their wages as a result of the country’s wretched economic situation. The second round of truck drivers’ strikes has caused shortages at gas stations around the country.11, 12, 13

    Today, every city throughout Iran is experiencing power and water outages, which occur every day. At the same time, there is a serious shortage of water reserves throughout the country, accompanied by the harshest air pollution, causing many complaints. Hundreds of citizens are photographing the situation and sending clips to television stations managed by the Iranian opposition, broadcasting in the Farsi language from London to Iran. The shortage of water and electricity is even reflected in Iran’s own media, and all of Iran’s television and radio stations are broadcasting calls to citizens to save water and electricity. The regime confirms that the electricity and water outages occur according to a schedule planned by the Energy Ministry. Following many protests by citizens and the huge effects of power outages on bakeries, large and small factories, and small businesses, the energy minister instructed the halt of electricity sales to Iraq and Afghanistan, which caused demonstrations in both of these countries against the Iranian regime.

    The Zayandeh Roud River no longer runs under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol Bridge

    The Zayandeh Roud River no longer runs under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol Bridge, named for its 33 arches, in the Iranian city of Isfahan where farmers struggle with the aftermath of a 30-year drought. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

    The deterioration in the economic situation is accompanied by countless reports and articles published every day through the media in Iran about corruption in the government and other elements close to senior figures in the regime.

    At the same time, Iranian newspapers reported on the smuggling of millions of dollars from the remaining foreign currency reserves in the country. These reports accuse senior government officials and those close to the leaders and their families of planning to flee from Iran, taking tens of millions of dollars and gold bullion with them. One parliament member who sits on the committee for planning and budgeting charged that $9 billion earmarked for the import of basic commodities is missing.14

    Some Iranian parliament members called in a letter on July 27, 2018, upon the legal authorities to get itself together and order the arrest of dozens of senior government figures “planning to flee from Iran,” following growing concerns about the outbreak of war with the United States. A letter from parliament members to Ayatollah Sadeq Ardeshir Larijani points out that hundreds of senior government officials have sought to obtain foreign passports and identification papers in various countries in recent years and have already sent tens of millions of dollars abroad.15

    When Valiollah Seif, who used to be the governor of Iran’s central bank, attended the official ceremony at the central bank on July 28, 2018, for the transfer of his post to his successor, Abdolnasser Hemmati, the Iranian press claimed that Seif intends to flee abroad to reunite with all of his family, which has been living there for many years.

    Iran’s internal severe situation, from all points of view, with everyone in Iran agreeing that it is at its worst since the Iran-Iraq War, has caused all the regime’s leaders to express openly deep concern over the possibility that the government will collapse. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard and the commander of the Basij force recently said that despair is growing and increasing even among their forces and many of them intend to leave the government to save themselves and their families because they already see the dissolution of the regime.

    Dr. Hassan Abbasi, a well-known historian, philosopher, and senior personality in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, gave a sharp speech at the end of July 2018. He admitted that the position of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was increasingly precarious among the people. According to him, the people are shooting “all the arrows toward to the Supreme Leader, and they consider him responsible for the serious situation.” Dr. Abbasi stated that “the powerlessness of successive Iranian governments has caused corruption to rage at astronomical levels at a time when the people are starving for bread, and the failure of intelligence services in Iran to monitor failing administrations in the country is only part of the reasons for the ‘injustice’ done to the Supreme Leader. He is losing stature in the eyes of the people over the situation.”16

    * * *

    Notes

    1 https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1016056693791346688?lang=en

    2 https://donya-e-eqtesad.com/%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B4-%D8%B3%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-62/3409725-%D8%A2%DB%8C%D8%A7-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%A6%DB%8C%D8%B3-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%BE-%D8%B1%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%86-%D8%AA%D9%86%DA%AF%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%B1%D9%85%D8%B2-%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF-%DA%A9%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D9%81%DB%8C%D9%84%D9%85

    3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR5nib7_Yhw

    4 https://www.farsnews.com/news/13970502001021/%D9%86%D9%82%D8%B4-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%B7-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D9%86%DA%AF%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%AF%D8%A8-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D9%86%D9%81%D8%AA%DB%8C-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86

    5 https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000003535358/iranian-tv-shows-replicas-destruction.html

    6 http://kayhan.ir/fa/news/137979

    7 https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Houthis-Target-Saudi-Oil-Tanker-In-Red-Sea.html

    8 https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1397/05/06/1787593/%DA%AF%D9%81%D8%AA%DA%AF%D9%88-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B9-%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AE%D8%B7%D8%B1-%D8%A8%DB%8C%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AF-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B9-%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B1%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AE%D8%B7%D8%B1-%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C%D9%85-%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%DB%8C%DA%A9-%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%AF-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA

    9 https://twitter.com/MjHaghshenas/status/1022042259804631040

    10 https://www.wsj.com/articles/iranians-hoard-gold-ahead-of-u-s-sanctions-1533466801

    11 https://www.radiofarda.com/a/iran_truckdrivers_strike/29387874.html

    12 https://www.dw.com/fa-ir/iran/a-44815610

    13 http://fa.euronews.com/2018/07/23/reports-on-social-media-on-truckers-restart-strike-in-iran

    14 https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2018/08/09/Iranian-MP-says-nine-billion-dollars-went-missing-amid-the-collapse-of-Riyal.html

    15 https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1397/05/06/1787565/%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%87-%D9%85%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A2%D9%85%D9%84%DB%8C-%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D9%86%DA%AF%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%DB%8C-%D9%86%D9%85%D8%A7%DB%8C%D9%86%D8%AF%DA%AF%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%AF%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AF%D9%88-%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B9%DB%8C%D8%AA%DB%8C

    16 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpKQMC9amu4