Iran and the US are playing a different game

By Claude Salhani

Tehran and Washington are at it once again, exchanging fairly heavy-duty insults. The hope is, for the benefit of mankind, they remain at the insult level and refrain from escalating the crisis.

This is not the kind of talk you expect from heads of state nor what you expect to find under the heading of diplomatic exchanges.

Then again, these are not your typical heads of state and the diplomacy practised by Iran does not resemble what one finds in Whitehall, the Quai d’Orsay or in Foggy Bottom.

In one corner is a Shia cleric, who reports to a senior cleric who views the world through a very narrow prism set by a particular sectarian interpretation of religion and of what happened several centuries ago. It is a regime that considers terrorism as a normal way of conducting the affairs of state.

In the other corner is an egocentric re-election-obsessed leader who says he knows all there is to know about everything under the sun. US President Donald Trump does not have the reputation of an erudite expert on world affairs. Said one late-night comedian recently: “If you want to hide a book from Trump where is the one place you can rest assured he will never look?”

Answer: in a library.

When he signed an executive order freezing Iranian assets, Trump declared that more sanctions would be levied on Iranian leaders, starting with “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini” as in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died 30 years ago.

Trump no doubt had meant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who replaced Khomeini, the founder and spiritual guide of the Islamic Revolution, in 1989, but, what the heck, to Trump, one Iranian supreme leader sounds and looks much like the next one, even if Khomeini is no stranger to Iran’s fanatical drift into disaster.

Trump wields the United States’ military might, bullying his way in a manner unbecoming the leader of the free world.

It goes without saying that the United States is militarily better armed, equipped and trained than Iran. In an all-out war the United States would, as the Trump put it, “obliterate parts of the country.”

However, the Iranians are driven by a deep-rooted Islamic fervour that blinds them to the balance of power and instills them with delusions of victory here and in the hereafter that are difficult to comprehend by the West.

That’s on the military side of things. On the political side of the dispute, things are more complicated.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the governing mullahs have not changed the path they initially set out to follow. They have not deviated from their objectives by a single iota. They have followed the same foreign policy from day one.

In the West, with every change of government comes a change of policy. For the Iranians, long-term planning means plotting out their next 100 years if not more.

In contrast, the United States changes its foreign policy every four or eight years. A first-term president often wastes about a year getting his feet under his desk, finding the right people to run the government’s key positions and having them approved by Congress.

The Iranians have been playing complicated political games in which you say one thing and do something else for 2,000 to 3,000 years.

With the Trump administration, a high turnover rate deprived the administration of anyone with more than a couple of years, at best, of experience. Except maybe for John Bolton. All he wants to do — if he had his way — is press the button that says “Tehran.”

The Iranians are aware of Washington’s changing power cycles and that’s why they are banking on the 2020 election to place someone new in the White House on whom they can test the next phase of their long-term strategy.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

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