The confrontation between Iran and the US is a textbook case of the influence of ideology, rather than pragmatism, in policymaking. The dispute could very well escalate into a military showdown that may engulf the entire Middle East.
Expanding U.S. sanctions against Iran, which are expected to climax on May 3, by bringing Iranian oil exports to zero, will leave Tehran with few options. The ruling mullahs have declared that if Iran is denied oil revenues no other country in the region will be allowed to sell its oil.
The threat should be taken seriously. Iran has the capability to carry out its threat, either by way of its militant organs in the region or using its own military capabilities. Of course, the cost of such an option will be huge on Iran, but the Tehran regime will be willing to bring the temple down.
Iran is ruled by a theological regime that is driven by deeply entrenched ideals and convictions. In that respect, it is similar to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. In both cases, ideology, rather than rationality, swayed decision making. In Iraq under Saddam, monumental decisions, like the 1981 war against Iran, the 1991 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 confrontation with the US, were made under the influence of ideology and not as a result of careful calculations.
Similarly, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, ideology rules. The ruling mullahs are convinced that they are on a divine mission to rid the region, if not the entire world, of the Great Satan. They deeply believe that the U.S., over many decades, extending to the regime of the ousted Shah, has persistently abused their country, robbed it of its resources and generally humiliated its people.
The Iranian response should be to undermine its influence in the region. The prescription for such an undertaking is to confront Israel and export the Iranian revolutionary model to Iran's Arab neighbors, which Tehran believes are America's clients.
How can Iran respond to the US sanctions?
Iran has little diplomatic options and several military ones. It can start by employing any of the militias it supports in the region to carry attacks in an Arab Gulf state in order to undermine its stability. It may also upgrade the challenge by having one of its client militias attack an American target in the region.
Historical precedence may lead the Iranians to believe that attacking American targets in the region works. In 1983, the attack on the U.S. Marines base near Beirut airport, and against the U.S. embassy, led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Lebanon.
Today, an Iranian attack on American interests in the region or any of the US Arab allies will most likely provoke a violent response. This, in turn, may prompt Iran to direct Hezbollah to attack Israel, thus aggravating the conflict into an all-out war in the region. And if that fails, Tehran may employ Samson's options, by closing the straits of Hormuz using its own military capabilities. This will almost certainly bring about a swift and devastating American response.
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