Iranians fear their foes are ‘ganging up’ with Trump
US President Donald Trump is making Iran nervous. Authorities recently banned private drones in Tehran after one — used by state broadcasting to film a documentary — was shot down over Enghelab Square near the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The economy doesn’t seem any better than it was under sanctions and people are more worried about war than since the time of Saddam Hussein,” a middle-aged professional in Tehran said referring to the despot in power in Baghdad during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“It’s as if people feel the Americans, Jews and Arabs are all ganging up on us.”
For many weeks, neither officials nor the public knew how seriously to take utterances from the Trump administration.
It was easy to smirk when Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, resigned because of his contacts with Russia two weeks after he put Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile tests and naval confrontations in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif drew widespread laughter at the international security conference in Munich by noting that the “tweet is now very fashionable’’.
An Iranian academic told The Arab Weekly he thought most Iranians were still laughing at Trump but that the joke had worn off with the elite.
“Those involved in politics are concerned about more sanctions and possible limited confrontation,” he said. “They feel that a conflict between the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps] and the US Navy in the Gulf could erupt more easily than under [Barack] Obama.
“They say that Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates are all trying to share in what they think may be a new US direction and are getting together to argue that Iran is supporting terrorism.”
Iran’s leaders are well aware of the track record of Trump officials. Steve Bannon, the hawkish head of strategy in the White House, has famously predicted “a major shooting war in the Middle East again”.
Tehran knows that some pushing for senior positions — including former UN ambassador John Bolton — have worked for organisations that received payments from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a cult-like militant opposition group that is widely detested in Iran because of its past alliance with Saddam.
While both Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rohani have been restrained in their reactions to Trump, military commanders have stressed their readiness for action.
Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ ground forces, said the message of recent 3-day military exercises in central and eastern Iran, including firing “advanced rockets”, was that “world arrogance” should “not do anything stupid” lest it “receive a strong slap in the face”.
The possible flashpoints are numerous. During the election campaign, Trump promised to shoot “out of the water” Iranian vessels judged to be harassing any US Navy ship in the Gulf.
The gaffe of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, in confusing US and Saudi vessels during a news conference in early February suggested a hardening in Washington of the notion that Iran is using Yemen’s Houthi tribesmen as proxies to undermine a US ally whose 2-year intervention appears stalemated.
The Trump administration has not been short of advice warning Iran against expanding its power throughout the region.
Former US ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has wide experience in the Middle East, has pointed out the “self-limiting” nature of Iran’s influence: “The harder they push, the more resistance they get,” he wrote in The Nation.
Others have pointed out that Washington and Tehran are de facto allies in Iraq, with US special forces working alongside Iranian-backed Shia militias, Iranian advisers and Iraqi troops against the Islamic State (ISIS).
It therefore makes little sense, they argue, to denounce Iran as the “number one terrorist state”.
But the Trump administration shows little finesse or any awareness that bellicose statements may have effects other than pleasing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or rallying support among Americans convinced they are under attack from radical Islam.
Iran has taken particular umbrage at Trump’s attempt, stalled by the courts, to ban from travelling to the United States citizens from seven mainly Muslim countries, including the Islamic Republic.
More than 1 million Iranians are estimated to be living in the United States.
While polls have indicated a 7% margin of support in the United States for the so-called Muslim ban, it is widely resented by Iranians, in America and at home.
“Trump brings the political elite, all the different factions, including Rohani and the hardliners, together in Iran, as internal differences seem less important when people believe the country is under threat,” said the Iranian academic.
“If the US follows policies like the ‘Muslim ban’, then pro-American Iranians will be angry; some people just want to visit the US, go to study or visit relatives.
“Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan, whose citizens have carried out many terrorist attacks (in the United States) are within the ban! Trump knows his executive order has nothing to do with terrorist attacks. It’s just a matter of satisfying his social base.”
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
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