In 1941, in the midst of World War II, two imperial powers, the USSR and Britain, threatened Iran with invasion, although the country had officially announced neutrality in the conflict. While the Iranian leadership acknowledged the gravity of the situation, it refused to cave in to the Soviet-British ultimatum. For them, resistance and military defeat was more bearable than “treason and capitulation”.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Iranian army was swiftly defeated and the Soviet and British imperial forces occupied the country for several years. Although severely weakened, Tehran continued to struggle for its sovereignty and a year after the end of the war, managed to regain it, as the occupiers were forced to withdraw.
The ‘maximum pressure’ tactics will not succeed in subduing Iran, nor will an invasion.
This, along with many other episodes in Iran’s modern history, demonstrates that resistance is a fundamental aspect of Iranian political culture and has always been a driving force in its foreign policy. Today, as the country faces yet another threat to its sovereignty, it will abide by that same exact principle.
In fact, resistance is even more central to the political character of the Islamic Republic than the governments which preceded it. That, along with a number of other factors, guarantees the ultimate failure of the United State’s’s attempt to have the Iranians capitulate.
Why ‘maximum pressure’ will not work
In April, the Trump administration announced it would not renew sanction waivers to countries buying Iranian oil and threatened with punitive measures those who violate the strict sanctions regime it had imposed. Since then, it has escalated its threats and hostile rhetoric pushing further with its “maximum pressure” campaign.
The premise of this strategy is that in the face of an existential threat, survival matters the most to the Islamic Republic. Pushing the Iranian economy to the brink would compel Iranians to rise up against their government and force the Islamic Republic to “act pragmatically” – so the argument goes.
Washington is hoping this strategy would exhaust Tehran and force it to come to the negotiating table on new US terms. But it may very well be disappointed.
While the Trump administration expects “maximum pressure” to leave Iran with no choice but to capitulate, the near-unanimous consensus in the country is that whatever happens, Iranians will resist.
The Islamic Republic’s leadership has made it a point to convince the Iranian public that any appeasement of the US would amount to a surrender. It has responded to the Trump administration’s threats with defiant rhetoric, which so far has worked.
While Iranians are suffering from the economic crisis, the US “maximum pressure” strategy is compelling them to rally around the flag, rather than try to “take down the regime”. This is not only because the cultural value of resistance is relatively high, but also because the more the Iranian leadership resists foreign pressure, the more legitimacy it gains.
And if the past four decades are anything to go by, the Islamic Republic would never trade resistance-based legitimacy for negotiations with a hostile power. That is why the least likely outcome of the “maximum pressure” strategy would be Tehran agreeing to come to the negotiating table on US President Donald Trump’s’s unilateral terms.
At the same time, Iran will not remain passive in the face of mounting US pressure. It has the capability to affect Washington’s main regional priority – oil prices – without much cost and effort and it can do so without using or triggering a military confrontation. It can use its network of friends and allies in the region and beyond to disrupt the production and global trade of oil.
Additionally, Iran’s anti-trafficking cooperation with the European Union may also be affected. The Iranian authorities would stick to these agreements with the EU on paper but do nothing in practice. This could result in another migration wave towards the European borders or a significant increase in drug trafficking.
A war the US cannot end
If Washington moves to wage war, it is hard to imagine how it would bring Iran to its knees. There are at least three major challenges the US would face in such a scenario.
First, US global rivals China and Russia would likely back the Iranian resistance, albeit unofficially. Both have been irritated by the US pivot to Asia and the trade wars Trump has waged; a conflict with Iran would be an opportunity for these global powers to get back at the US.
Obviously, neither China nor Russia would fight for Iran, but keeping their partner afloat is of strategic value. Both have an interest in stopping Trump and exhausting him in a confrontation with Tehran so he would not wreak havoc closer to their borders. Besides military and financial support, the two could provide Iran with the political backing at the UN Security Council.
Second, if Trump starts a war, he would face far greater international isolation than what his abrasive policies have so far produced. Today, Iran holds the moral high ground because of its strategic patience and commitment to the nuclear deal, while the international community continues to reject Trump’s aggressive posturing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was made aware of the limits of US soft power, especially after his recent visits to Europe, where he faced a cold reception and a rebuke over Washington’s policy on Iran.
Trump is perhaps counting on the US leadership position in the world – that when the US acts, the rest will follow. But quitting international agreements and treaties is one thing and waging a war is another. In all likelihood, if the US chooses to start a conflict, it would have to go about it without the support of its traditional allies. Its regional partners – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel – might also not be of much help and indeed could turn into a liability, disrupting US war plans by pursuing their own interests.
Third, a war with Iran would almost certainly be a greater disaster than the one in Iraq. The US currently is not aware of the full Iranian military potential. Having been long isolated from western arms markets, Iran has developed its own domestic weapons industry, the capabilities of which remain unknown to the outside world. This could certainly undermine US military planning in the run-up to war.
Although Iran’s military is inferior to that of the US, it is still much stronger than Saddam Hussein’s army, which was decimated in 2003 in a matter of weeks. Iranian forces are much better prepared, more ideologically committed and more numerous. That, along with Iran’s mountainous landscape, guarantees the superiority of Iranian forces against any invading force.
At this point, a full US ground offensive is unlikely, given the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq; an aerial campaign, however, will also not go without a response. Iran is capable of hitting US bases in its immediate neighbourhood and disrupting oil supply routes, while its allies and friends are able to escalate against US strategic interests and partners. The US risks getting itself into conflict it would not be able to end.
Thus, whatever path the US chooses – to continue its maximum pressure strategy or to escalate and start a conflict, it would ultimately face failure. Meanwhile, Tehran is edging closer to exhausting diplomacy. There are already signs that it is resorting to alternative strategies and the EU will be the first to feel the heat.
There are still quite a few parties willing to mediate between Tehran and Washington. The hope remains that they will succeed in de-escalating the situation and preclude a confrontation. It is still not too late for the US and Iran to settle their differences in a peaceful way.