Shortly after arriving in Tehran in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced that the new regime was destined to export its revolution to the region. At the time, Khomeini’s declaration sounded like an empty boast. After all, how could a country devastated by a civil upheaval take on its two powerful neighbors, Iraq and Saudi Arabia? But the Supreme Leader and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took an eschatological view of history, hoping that divine intervention would open a path. Divine providence, it seems, delivered in the form of the United States’ 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was called “a gift of God” by Khamenei—an estimation that rings true, given Iran’s enmeshment in the fabric of Iraqi society and politics.
President Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House caused apprehension in Tehran with his criticism of the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Washington’s plan to help Saudi Arabia provide a counterpoint to Iran, including talks about a “Middle East NATO,” added to the anxiety. When in May 2018 the United States pulled out of the JCPOA and imposed sanctions, the gloom in Tehran deepened. Despite public defiance and brave talk about the “economy of resistance”—a reference to creating a self-sufficient economy—Ayatollah Khamenei and top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards were deeply concerned about the future.
Following a highly contentious debate on how to respond to the American challenge, an extreme hardline faction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) won the argument. In April of this year, Khamenei fired Ali Jafari—the Guards’ veteran commander who counseled restraint against the United States—and appointed Hossein Salami instead. Salami wasted little time in implementing a policy of “if Iran cannot sell oil, no one else will”—a shorthand for striking oil exports in the Gulf. In doing so, Salami drew on the long-standing IRGC’s Strategic Triangle Maritime, Irregular Warfare plan, which used the so-called Anti-Access, Anti-Denial (A2/AD) strategy to disrupt traffic in the Straits of Hormuz and beyond.
Starting in May, the Guards Navy Special Force attacked four vessels in the Sea of Oman off the coast of the Emirate of Fujairah and seized two ships traversing the Straits of Hormuz. On June 20, the Guard’s Missile Unit, the Sepahe Moshaki, shot down a $220 million Global Hawk Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone. Washington’s failure to respond to the provocation was a tremendous boost to the hardliners, who took to calling Trump a bozdel (chicken heart)—a Persian term for a coward. Having to pay no cost, on September 14, 2019, Iran launched a spectacular attack on the Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, which knocked out five million barrels a day of crude production, amounting to approximately half of the country’s output or five percent of global oil supply. Even some of the hardlines braced themselves for a reaction, recalling that in May 1988, Ronald Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis, during which the U.S. Navy hit several targets in response to Iranian mining of the Gulf. However, except for a limited cyberattack on Iran’s propaganda network, Trump’s lack of action cemented the opinion that the American president was a paper tiger and a mentally unstable buffoon to boot—an image popularized in numerous cartoons and the social media.
Much as the bold actions of the IRGC advanced the regime’s vision of regional hegemony, it was Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds that was a true gift of God, according to Khamenei. After the Turkish invasion, the Kurds appealed to Bashar al-Assad for help, prompting the Syrian army to move to Rojava. Exhausted by years of fighting, the Syrian Army relies on the support of Russia, the Shite militias commanded by Suleimani and Hezbollah. In the hope of securing Rojava, some 30 percent of Syrian territory, the Iranians have been busy creating new locations for their “land bridge” to Lebanon—a route devised to ship supplies to Hezbollah and evade sanctions by importing goods through the port of Latakia.
Geopolitics aside, the abandonment of the Kurds played into the narrative that the United States was a highly unreliable and even treacherous ally capable of stabbing its loyal partner in the back. Kayhan, the mouthpiece of Khamenei, noted that “no one trusts Trump, even Israel and Great Britain,” and warned that “Trump will leave the US allies alone in the nick of time.” Another paper wrote that “Trump's dealing with American allies has proven that he does not adhere to any written or unwritten agreement and sacrifices everything for his own gain.” As a result, partnering with Trump is a strategic mistake, “which would bring no fruit.”
There are some indications that the Saudis came to the same realization. On September 29, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared that he did not believe in military action and would prefer a political solution, a sharp contrast from his earlier proclamations. Significantly, Saudi Arabia decided to seek support from Russia, which, by stepping into the American-made morass in Syria, bolstered its image as a stable and reliable player in the Middle East. On his recent visit to the Saudi kingdom, President Vladimir Putin signed economic agreements worth 2 billion dollars. In turn, Moscow may mediate between Riyadh and Tehran, paving the way to a new regional compact likely to include Iran as one of its stakeholders.
It is too early to know whether the Saudi pivot to Russia signals a realignment in the region away from the United States. Indeed, the contours of the new reconfigurations would not be known anytime soon. Nevertheless, one thing is already evident: because of Trump’s foreign policy decision, there has been a grave loss of trust in American leadership that will be hard to repair, giving the Iranian regime another opportunity to advance its revolutionary vision.
Ofira Seliktar and Farhad Rezaei are the authors of Iran, Revolution, and Proxy Wars.