The Iranian leadership continues to prepare for further economic, political and military tensions with the United States, while the United States continues to build up its military forces in the Persian Gulf region.
The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group is already in the area, and the crippling U.S. sanctions will continue. In Iran, the top echelon of the regime headed by Supreme Leader Khamenei is preparing public opinion for an ongoing confrontation with the United States—the “Great Satan”—and particularly for the anticipated economic hardship, framing it as part of what the regime calls the “struggle economy.” In reality, the economy keeps deteriorating rapidly, with growing shortages and skyrocketing prices of consumer goods.
In the regional arena as well, tensions are mounting. On May 14, 2019, the Yemeni Houthis—who are under Iran’s influence in Yemen—used seven GPS-guided unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to attack the Aramco East-West pipeline’s pumping stations in Saudi territory in the Dawadmi and Afif regions.
A United Nations report submitted to the U.N. Security Council in January 2018 found compelling evidence that Houthi-made “Qatef” drones had an almost identical construction and capabilities as the Iranian “Ababil” UAV.
On May 12, 2019, Saudi, Norwegian and UAE oil tankers were sabotaged near the shore of the Fujairah emirate in the Gulf of Oman.
In both cases, Iran signaled that amid the tightening sanctions and deepening economic crisis it is capable of pinpoint strikes on sensitive oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, as well as in the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
The attack on the Aramco oil infrastructure highlights the persistent threat of Houthi unmanned weapon systems targeting vital onshore and offshore Saudi and Saudi-affiliated sites.
The targeted pipeline was built during the Iran-Iraq war as an alternative for Saudi Arabia should the Strait of Hormuz be blocked. The oil terminal at the port of Fujairah where Saudi tankers were sabotaged is another such alternative.
The message sent to the UAE and/or Saudi Arabia by these attacks was thus that “we know where your vulnerabilities are.”
Thus, the attacks near the port of Fujairah and in Saudi territory are symbolic. The Emirates serve as an outlet for an oil pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz and originates in Habshan in Abu Dhabi. As for the drone attack, it marks the first time that the Houthis—aided in their use of missiles and drones by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah—have hit a target nearly 500 miles from the Yemeni border (assuming the drones were not launched from Saudi territory).
Significantly, after the latest incident the Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, published a cartoon that glorifies the Houthis defeating Saudi Arabia.3 In the cartoon: a traditional Houthi dagger (jambiya) with a hilt in the form of a drone breaks the Saudi sword.
The Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones and missiles in the past. In July 2018, a drone exploded at Abu Dhabi airport causing minor damage and sending a strong message to the UAE, which plays a dominant role in the southern parts of Yemen. In January 2019, a senior intelligence chief and senior officials were killed at the al-Anad air force base just outside Aden by a weaponized drone that exploded above them as they attended a military parade.
Given the recent incidents in Fujairah and Saudi Arabia, if the United States or one of its regional allies reveals clear intelligence that Iran was behind the attack on the Saudi tankers, it could lead to the deployment of military escorts for commercial vessels in the region. That, in turn, could augment the frictions with the Iranian naval presence and provoke a further escalation, to the point of limited hostilities between Iran and the United States.
The most dangerous situation the Islamic Revolution has ever known
Meanwhile, the IRGC’s new commander, Hossein Salami, said on May 15, 2019: “Today, our enemies, by applying the maximum pressure strategy and using all their capacities, are trying to break the steadfastness of the Iranian nation, but they will fail.” He added that Iran’s enemies are unaware that the resilience, determination and honor of the nation form its protective shield.
Salami, who is known for his scathing remarks about the United States and Israel, called the current situation the most dangerous and sensitive one that the Iranian Islamic Revolution has ever known and said Iran was at the brink of an all-out confrontation with the enemy. He claimed, however, that Iran’s enemies had exhausted all their resources and, despite their steadfast demeanor, were falling apart internally and on the way to being vanquished by Iran.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami likewise declared: “Iran stands at the peak of defense-military preparedness to counter any threat or act of aggression,” and that it would defeat the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Hatami emphasized the fact that last year, despite the difficult conditions it is facing, Iran did not neglect military development, buttressing its power of deterrence.
“Negotiations Are like a Poison”
Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with senior officials and again rejected any possibility of negotiating with the United States. “As long as the United States is what it is now,” he said, “negotiating is but poison, and with this current administration that poison is twice [as lethal].”
In a wide-ranging survey of the difficult history of Iran’s relations with the “Great Satan,” he asserted that “the U.S. leaders serve the interests of the Zionist regime more than any other country.” Khamenei also elaborated on the United States’ domestic difficulties, which, he said, were leading it to externalize its problems and look for enemies.
“Negotiations,” Khamenei said, “entail exchanges, give and take, but all that interests the United States is power. They say, come, let’s discuss your defensive capabilities and the reasons that you are developing missiles of certain [long] ranges; reduce the range of the missiles so that if we hit you, you won’t be able to hit back. Come, let’s discuss your strategic influence in the region, which means ‘Give it up.’”
Khamenei added, “Negotiations are like a poison as long as the United States behaves as it behaves, and given the current [Trump] administration—which is not decent and does not obey any law—the poison is especially strong, and as a result no noble and wise Iranian will negotiate over his advantages … Not one of our clever people is looking for negotiations.”
Khamenei repeated his assessment that a war between Iran and the United States is unlikely.
“This is not a matter of a military confrontation between the two countries since war is not in the offing … We do not want a war, and neither does the United States, which knows it does not stand to gain anything from a war. This is a struggle of aspirations and values, and Iranian willpower is strong because Iran puts its trust in Allah. The boastful and bullying enemy has no real strength.”
Referring to Washington’s calls for Iran to change its policy, Khamenei said that Iran’s behavior has indeed changed, and “the Iranian people now hate the United States more than ever, and it can no longer interfere in their affairs.”
The Supreme Leader’s forthright statements came in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to negotiate with Iran and his provision to the Swiss of a phone number the Iranians can use to call him directly. Trump’s proposal earned him derisive cartoons in most of the Iranian media. In this Fars cartoon, Trump holds a “telephone carrier” and says, “I want the Iranians to call me, but John Kerry is telling them not to call.”