May 15, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1396

Iranian Reactions To The Strategic Change In The U.S.'s Iran Policy And To Israel's Activity To Eliminate The Iranian Threat To It From Syria

May 15, 2018 | By A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1396


In his May 8, 2018 speech, U.S. President Donald Trump turned the tables on Iran, on its European partners, and on supporters of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) worldwide, when he announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the agreement. Following this, Iran is now facing two fronts that coordinate with each other – the political-economic front, led by the U.S., and the military front, led by Israel, that aims to eliminate the Iranian threat to it from Syria.

Iranian Reactions To President Trump's Withdrawal From The JCPOA – The Political Level

Despite the U.S.'s move, the Iranian regime does not want to leave the JCPOA – for the same reasons it accepted it in the first place. The agreement gives Iran nuclear-state status; it elevates it to the level of a global power; it obliges the West to upgrade Iran's civilian nuclear program; and it protects the Iranian regime from being attacked by the West. Therefore, the Iranian regime will adhere to the agreement even if only Russia and China continue to support it.

The threats issued by Iran prior to Trump's announcement – i.e. that Iran would also leave the agreement and would resume enriching uranium – have been replaced with Iran's granting of extensions (that this week was extended from two weeks to two months) for its demand that the European governments guarantee monetary compensation for European companies that will be trading with Iran and that will be subject to punitive measures against them on the part of the U.S. Such monetary guarantees from Europe are impossible to obtain, and are not carried out even today, when American sanctions on companies trading with Iran are already in force because of Iran's human rights violations and support for terrorism. Thus, there is no possibility that such guarantees will be given by the governments of Europe after the U.S. has left the agreement.

Therefore, the Iranian regime's policy of negotiating with the Europeans, Russia, and China should be seen only as an attempt to stall and to look for formulas for Iran's submission, with regime spokesmen frequently issuing ambiguous, general threats in order to gain some sort of diplomatic achievement.[1]

This policy of Iranian President Rohani has won the full backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who in a speech following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA did not announce that Iran was withdrawing from the JCPOA, as he had stated in the past that he would if the U.S. did. Furthermore, he has given President Rohani increasing room to maneuver in reaching new agreements with the Europeans.[2] This was also Khamenei's modus operandi when the agreement was accepted – he spoke against it at the same time as he approved it. Iran has no real tools to deal with the U.S.'s withdrawal from the agreement, or with the Europeans' anticipated withdrawal from it as well, which may happen because they have no option.

This modus operandi, in which the Iranians act like a superpower against weak rivals but rationally and submissively when facing a dangerous and powerful rival ready to use economic or military force against them, has for years been characteristic of the Iranian regime (see MEMRI reports analyzing this and identifying Iran as a paper tiger: MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1150, Tehran vs The Awakening Sunni Arab Camp: Significance And Implications, March 31, 2015, and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6183, Iran Threatens Saudi Arabia: 'The IRGC... Will Take Vengeance' On The Al-Sa'ud Regime; 'Our Responses Will Be... Harsh And Decisive,' October 11, 2015).

Since Iran is rejecting any change to the JCPOA, particularly any discussion on the subject of its missile program or its regional expansion in the Middle East, and since the European countries – despite their opposition to the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement – agree with the U.S. that there is a need to include the Iranian missile program and regional expansion in any agreement with it, it does not appear that the upcoming meetings between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his French, German, and UK counterparts will yield any breakthrough.

There has also been a shift in Iran's position concerning its nuclear program and the resumption of its uranium enrichment in excess of the percentage permitted it by the JCPOA. While prior to President Trump's announcement, Iranian regime spokesmen had threatened to renew uranium enrichment, since the announcement the regime has taken no steps aimed at doing so, or at resuming activity in any other areas of its nuclear program.

Iranian Reactions To Israel's Military Activity To Eliminate The Iranian Threat To It From Syria – The Military Level

At this time, Iran is not ready for a widescale confrontation with Israel, and the steps it is taking in the hostilities are minimal. It has announced a policy of restraint, and has responded in measured fashion, one time only, to the serial Israeli attacks that caused Iranian loss of life and damage to Iranian battle arrays in Syria.

As on previous occasions, Iran is for the time being refraining from publishing any reports on the May 10, 2018 widescale Israeli attacks that struck as many as 50 Iranian targets in Syria. The Iranian media reports on the hail of Iranian rockets on Israeli military targets in the Golan Heights depict this as an operation carried out by the Syrian army, not by Iran, and in response to an Israeli attack that preceded it.

Iran also is refraining, in its media, from presenting the Israeli attacks as a direct Israel-Iran confrontation.

Will The Continuation Of Israel's Activity Against Iranian Forces In Syria Lead To All-Out Israel-Iran War?

As far as Iran is concerned, any postponement of all-out confrontation with Israel is preferable, because Iran has not yet completed all steps of its deployment in the region, and U.S. forces still remain in Syria. But it should be remembered that pressing ideological, geostrategic, and political factors are at play here as well, and they are pushing it into such a confrontation with Israel.

The Ideological And Geostrategic Factors Pushing Iran To Launch All-Out Confrontation With Israel

For Iran, Syria is an essential strategic region, on several levels:

The Ideological-Revolutionary Level

At the core of Iran's Islamic revolutionary regime is the ideology of "exporting the revolution" to other countries and instilling the idea of the "rule of the jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih) across the region, and even globally. "Destroying Israel" is also a central tenet of the ideology of the Islamic revolutionary regime.

After its tremendous war effort in Syria, after its extensive expenditure of human, economic, and military resources in the war to protect the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria, and after coming so close to its goal of besieging Israel, it is not reasonable that Iran would relinquish these achievements with a withdrawal that could endanger it politically, economically, and regionally.

Indeed, the possibility that all-out confrontation will be prevented as a result of a hiatus in Iran's expansion due to external or internal pressure was discussed by the Iranian daily and regime mouthpiece Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei; on April 22, 2018, it clarified in an editorial that stopping Iran's expansion in Syria is impossible. The battle in Syria is not over, it said, and ending Iran's presence there would pose a grave risk to Iran's security:

"A well-known element [Israel] attacks the T4 airbase in Syria, and seven officers of [Iran's] Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are martyred. And then it [i.e. Israel] says that the IRGC must leave Syria, and that if it does not, it [the IRGC] will again be attacked. At the same time as the aggressive Zionists attack the base, some in Iran are wondering, Why do IRGC forces need to remain in Syria? It should not be difficult to understand that there is great danger from takfiri elements [i.e. ISIS], or that the Zionists and the Saudis will ultimately control Syria, [and that this would be dangerous] to Iran's security. In a situation in which the takfiri terrorism is not uprooted in Syria, and the stream that is more arrogant than ISIS – that is, the triad of America, the Zionist regime, and Saudi Arabia – want to take ISIS's place, it is not possible to leave Syria in the middle of things, because by doing so we will destroy all the Islamic fighters' efforts in the past seven years – efforts through which they succeeded in defeating the greatest scheme in the region in the last century, which is amazing and incredible."[1]

The Historic Persian Level

Iran has always seen itself as a regional Persian empire, and this fundamental perception is in line with the Shi'ite Islamic revolutionary vision.

The Geopolitical Level

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been in a geopolitical-religious confrontation with the Sunni-Arab world that surrounds it. In order to deal with this challenge, it has established an array of allies and proxies, in the form of Shi'ite militias and Sunni terror organizations, against Israel, known as the "resistance axis."[2]

The partial collapse of the Assad regime in Syria following the 2011 Arab Spring created both a need and an opportunity for Iran to deepen its penetration in Syria and to transform it from an ally into a protégé, enabling Iran to expand its strategic-military and economic deployment to the Mediterranean Sea.

The compromise-oriented Obama administration, and his demand that Saudi Arabia share its hegemony in the Middle East with Iran,[3] fanned the Iranian revolutionary regime's regional expansionist aspirations, and created a new reality of far-reaching Iranian triumphs in the region vis-à-vis the Sunni Arab world. The Obama administration's recognition of Iran as a nuclear power further enhanced the Iranian regime's determination to maximize its military and territorial achievements, since following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war the regime had built up its military capabilities on numerous levels and made itself into a de-facto regional power. 

The Economic Level

The Iranian regime has no options for economic development as part of the Western economy, because Khamenei has banned, and continues to ban, participation in it. Accordingly, the only option open to Iran for developing its economy – which in any case is in dire straits – lies in its regional lebensraum.

The Ideological And Geostrategic Factors Preventing Iran From Launching All-Out Confrontation With Israel

Along with the factors enumerated above that are pushing Iran to launch an all-out confrontation with Israel, there are also ideological and geostrategic factors pushing Iran to refrain from doing so.

As Iranian regime officials have rightly stated, Iran has never initiated a war against another state. This reflects a cultural-religious trait that is deeply rooted in Shi'ite history and that the Islamic revolutionary regime has gone against by trying to create a "new Shi'ite man" – a fighter who expands and exports the revolution and who takes control of the Sunni Arab surroundings in order to actualize the establishment of a Shi'ite Muslim empire.

However, reality shows that the Islamic revolutionary regime has failed miserably in its efforts to change the historical Shi'ite nature.[4] The Iranian regime has not, in its 40 years, succeeded in changing historical patterns, creating merely an impression of overcoming its historical characteristics.[5] For example, through great effort it has managed to cultivate the image of one single general, IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, as a national hero – and this came only after rumors that President Obama had promised that he would not be harmed. It should also be noted that a regime critic, Mehdi Khazali, the son of Ayatollah Khazali, even mocked Soleimani, saying that he hides most of the time and only emerges on occasion in various arenas where he stays for a short time, primarily for photo ops (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6699, Prominent Iranian Dissident Mehdi Khazali: Iran's Strategy, Policy In Syria Is Qods Force Adventurism Led By Qassem Soleimani – And It Is Wrong, December 2, 2016, and MEMRI TV Clip No. 5687, Iranian Dissident Mehdi Khazali Criticizes Iran's Qods Force Involvement In Syria: Soleimani's Mismanagement Destroyed Syria, September 10, 2016).

The Islamic regime's territorial achievements were always built, and are still built, on the strength of Arab and other militias; the Shi'ite regime itself is deterred every time it faces a significant force fully ready for war. The Shi'ite regime only went to war once, after a foreign Arab Sunni force (i.e. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein) invaded Iran in 1980.

These signs of weakness are clearly evident in Iran's policy in recent years. The following are a few examples: 

Iran is always aware, historically and today, that it operates in a hostile Sunni arena in which it comprises a mere 10% of the Muslims, and that most of its strength in recent years lies in using diplomatic power – harnessing for its purposes European and American leaders who are biased towards it and against the Sunni world and Israel.

What can be derived from this is that behind its vociferous and threatening revolutionary discourse, Iran always employs a rational and considered policy, and prioritizes national interests over the adventurism of the use of force.


So far, the elements preventing war are prevailing in the Iranian decision-making process. It is obvious that an Israeli operation against the regime base in Tehran would necessitate retaliation by Iran.

Basically, Iran's responses hinge on the nature of Israel's operations against it. In addition to this, Iran's decision whether to launch an all-out confrontation with Israel will be influenced by the Russian position. As of now, the Russian position on this issue is restrained. This can be seen in May 10, 2018 statements by Russian Federation Council senator Konstantin Koshachev:

"As for Russia, we are definitely and categorically against any enhanced military activity in this region, and not only because our military is stationed there. Any escalation will constitute an addition burden on the Syrian people ( as well as on all the others in the region), will lead to new victims, and will bring no tangible benefit to either side...

"In this context, Russia does not unequivocally support one side of the confrontation (as opposed to the U.S., for example). Though we enjoy a fully constructive relations with Tehran in actualizing the Astana process for an intra-Syrian settlement and for standing against the terrorists in Syria, the participation of the Israeli prime minister in the Immortal Regiment [i.e. Victory over Nazi Germany Day] march in Moscow on May 9 was quite demonstrative. This is Russia's unique political-diplomatic position, which should be exploited to the full in favor of common interests. Russia does not have an enemy in the Israel-Iran confrontation – it is this confrontation itself that is Russia's enemy."[6]


*A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Studies Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1], April 22, 2018.

[3] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 51, Obama's Strategy Of Equilibrium, August 5, 2015.

[4] For example, Supreme Leader Khamenei chose to cooperate with regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, in what Khamenei's followers called in a biography ("Sharh-e Esm") of him "the great taqiyya" – the Shi'ite concept of intentional deception in order to survive. However, his associates who were more aware of the real significance of Khamenei's actions took the book off the market because it harmed the myth of Khamenei's strength that the regime was trying to build.

[5] In contrast to the failure in building the myth of the "new Shi'ite fighter," the Iranian revolutionary regime has succeeded in building the myth of the modern Shi'ite diplomat who succeeds, by force of intellect, to overcome his stronger rivals and to bring victory to Iran in the international arena.

[6], May 10, 2018.

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