On 20 May, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, predicted that Donald Trump would fail to subdue Iran just as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan had failed before him. That Alexander burned Persepolis to the ground and Genghis and his descendants wrought devastation before colonising the Persian plateau doesn’t connote defeat in the Iranian long view; neither the Macedonians nor the Mongols were able to extinguish Iran’s vigour and creativity, which reasserted themselves as soon as the invaders had moved on or been assimilated by the superior civilisation around them. ‘Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone (sic),’ was how Zarif concluded his aspersion on American staying power.
The US President had threatened to bring about the ‘official end of Iran’, implying a punitive campaign of Genghis-like ferocity. When you bear in mind that US forces have all but encircled Iran — from the troops at al-Asad in Iraq (nicknamed ‘Camp Cupcake’ for its superior canteen) to a vast air base in Qatar and the berth of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain — Trump’s latest dispatch of a carrier strike group and some bombers to the region only reinforces the existing disparity in firepower.
Iran’s asymmetrical instruments include the Houthi Yemenis who have launched drone attacks on Saudi Arabia; Katyusha rockets, one of which recently landed not far from the US embassy in Baghdad; and small boats that may have been responsible for holing four tankers carrying Saudi oil in the Gulf of Oman.
Trump’s plan is to scare the Iranians to the negotiating table and then persuade them to retreat from their near abroad, abandon their ballistic missile programme and accept the most intrusive nuclear inspections in the world. That would vindicate his controversial decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal he inherited from Barack Obama. But it would take a rare set of circumstances for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to entertain the Trump prospectus, which is at odds with Iran’s self-image as a respected regional power fully entitled to roam its own backyard — unlike the American interlopers.
For Iran, the task of interpreting Trump’s mixed messages — brimstone one minute, vague emollience the next — has been complicated by John Bolton, the President’s hawkish national security adviser. Bolton is good friends with the People’s Mujahedin, an opposition group which went over to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, operates out of a troll farm in northern Albania, and purports, preposterously, to be a government in waiting. He would like nothing more than for the mullahs to dust down their centrifuges and go hell for leather for a bomb. But Iran’s modus operandi is deniable pinpricks through proxies, not a lunge for a nuke that would hand its enemies a pretext for regime change.
The country’s economic life has become very grim, with food inflation running at 85 per cent, GDP expected to contract 6 per cent this year, and the riyal shrivelling against the dollar with the speed of a succulent Behbahan date left out in the sun. Oil is still being exported, though in much smaller quantities, and more expensively given the high cost of circumventing sanctions using middlemen and ‘dark’ tankers (they switch off their transponders). What revenue isn’t siphoned off often ends up in escrow accounts for lack of a bank prepared to deal with Iran. The Americans are understandably relaxed about the barter-based channel that Iran and the EU have devised to insulate their trade from sanctions; it covers nothing but food and medicine.
For all its difficulties, Iran is more adept at riding out sanctions than any other country in the world, and there is no sign of the popular uprising that proponents of regime change expected to see, even recognising that the country’s peripheral regions have been targeted by armed guerrillas, and its computer systems by a new version of Stuxnet, the Israeli malware which paralysed the country’s main uranium enrichment plant back in 2010.
To be Iranian is to live in a sea of enemies. Zarif himself attributed an attack in September on a military parade, in which at least 24 people were killed, to ‘regional terror sponsors [i.e. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel] and their US masters’. Following the attack, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an adviser to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, said that ‘moving the battle deeper inside Iran is a declared option and will increase during the next phase’. Saudi officials have considered using private assassins to kill Qassem Soleimani, commander of the special forces that have so effectively advanced Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq.
But the regime’s public response to America’s upping of the ante has so far been careful. On 8 May, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran no longer considered itself bound by its undertaking to export the excess fissile material it produces — not, in itself, a serious breach of the nuclear deal, to which Iran has hitherto remained faithful.
Rouhani gave the nuclear deal’s European signatories, which include Britain, 60 days to find a more effective way to relieve pressure generated by US sanctions. If, as seems likely, the Europeans fail to do so, Iran reserves the right to escalate its nuclear activities. Trump and Bolton will have something to say about that. The future is uncertain. Will the Iranians eventually accept Trump’s urging that they ‘call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them’?
Iran regards the British as relatively sane interpreters of their traditional partner’s intentions. Jeremy Hunt’s comment that the Americans ‘don’t want a war with Iran’ but that ‘if American interests are attacked, they will retaliate’ will have been read more carefully in Tehran than any number of Trump tweets. As Britain’s Foreign Secretary has noted, ‘this is a part of the world where things can get triggered accidentally’.
Inside the country, the prohibitive cost of foreign food and clothes is turning people inwards. In Tehran there has been a revival of Persian poetry classes, theatre groups and bands playing tribal music. Young designers produce hip T-shirts with Iranian motifs, while old houses are turned into cafés serving fereni, a saffron-flavoured semolina not seen since grandma’s day. No one can afford Brazilian beef any more; bread, cheese and a handful of herbs will do. For the middle classes, internal travel — into the desert, up to the hills — replaces the sun-lounger in Bali. With the government strapped for cash, charities and self-help groups abound. The nuclear deal promised Iran an orgy of cosmopolitan consumerism. Its collapse has led to an uplifting self-reliance.