War of Words Between U.S. and Iran Escalates

Cipher Brief Expert View

Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani launched a series of  verbal attacks against the United States and President Donald Trump during a speech on Thursday at the Hamadan Martyrs’ Conference.  Among his comments, Soleimani said that if President Trump planned to make threats –  referring to a Tweet President Trump tweeted earlier in the week – that the President should direct the message to Soleimani, not Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as “it is not in (President Rouhani’s) dignity to respond. Soleimani’s speech was reportedly salted with hostile comments including: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine… Come. We are ready … If you begin the war, we will end the war.… There is not a night that we sleep and that we do not think of you!”

We asked Cipher Brief Expert and the Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at ODNI, Norman Roule what to make of the latest statements from Soleimani.

Roule:  Although Soleimani was likely aiming his posturing, in part, at Iran’s domestic hardliner audience and external proxies, this incident shows that Iran’s campaign of defiance is escalating as sanctions inexorably roll out.  Soleimani, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and Iran’s President have all recently made statements against the United States to which President Trump has responded harshly.  The comments from Soleimani also may signify that Tehran is seeking to elicit a bellicose response from the United States to bolster its domestic anti-American narrative as well as to gain sympathy from Europe, which tends to overlook Iran’s rhetoric as revolutionary hot air common at Iran’s many political events.

Ironically, this has not been an especially successful period for Soleimani and his colleagues.  Indeed, Iran’s intelligence organizations have endured a number of embarrassing setbacks.

  • European security services have cracked a number of Iranian terrorist operations in recent months, presenting President Rouhani with an awkward situation during his recent visit to Europe.
  • Europe has been able to do little to stop impending sanctions and the loss of hard currency will inevitably mean belt-tightening by Iran’s cash-hungry surrogates.
  • The seizure by the Arab coalition of Hodeida port means that Iran has one less avenue by which to ship weapons and funds to the Houthis in Yemen.  Houthi attacks on two Saudi tankers this week caused little damage.
  • Iran’s allies in Iraq have been embarrassed by their inability to provide basic services in their areas of control, leading to broad unrest.
  • Finally, Israel has repeatedly struck at Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria, reportedly costing dozens of Iranian lives.

The Cipher Brief:  What about Soleimani’s comments that the Red Sea is no longer safe for America?

Soleimani’s comment may be the closest Iran has come to taking responsibility for Houthi attacks in the area.  The statement – coming on the heels of the reported attack by Iran-sponsored Houthis against two Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea – will cause some in the region to see Iran as unbowed in the face of U.S. and international pressure against its external adventurism.  His claim that Iran is “near” the U.S. will be interpreted by some to imply that the Quds Force is prepared to conduct terrorist or cyber-attacks against U.S. forces in the region, or perhaps even against the Homeland.

Such language is likely to continue, primarily because Europe has been strangely mute.  Iran-enabled Houthi attacks in the Red Sea threaten Europe’s oil sources and Houthi missile strikes on Saudi Arabia threaten European nationals living in the Kingdom as well as Saudis (and Americans).  The past twelve months have seen a spate of apparent Iran-sponsored terrorist-related activities involving Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands.  It would be hard to imagine a better case for collective action against Iran.  Europe’s passive response is likely to result in Iran’s leaders believing that such activities can continue, because they have not yet reached a red line.

Tehran also likely believes that the United States is neither positioned nor interested in a conventional conflict, although seasoned military leaders such as Soleimani likewise certainly understand that Iran would be severely overmatched to the extent that any such conflict would mean the end of the Islamic Republic. As sanctions unroll, Iran will increase the frequency and harshness of its rhetoric – particularly if Europe remains silent and Tehran believes its comments will provoke a response from the White House.

Although it is unlikely that the recent attempted attacks in Europe and the Red Sea were coordinated, they do show how Iran’s surrogate machines and official operations have achieved a pace which at least hints at Iran’s region-wide influence.  In the absence of international condemnation of these operations, Iran will feel empowered to raise the stakes as the sanctions noose tightens.  At that point, the world will be compelled to deal with the consequences of far more than a few angry speeches.


Cipher Brief Expert View

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