June 14, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1461

In Light Of Impasse In Indirect Iran-U.S. Negotiations, Upsurge In Iranian Terrorism Anticipated On Various Fronts

June 14, 2019 | By A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1461


In the past month, Iran has escalated its violent activity against the Gulf states – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – with the aim of bringing the U.S. into negotiations with it on Iran's own terms: indirect negotiations aimed at lifting the U.S. sanctions on it. For the U.S., the aim of the negotiations is completely different; it is demanding changes to the JCPOA nuclear deal and a halt to Iran's expansion and subversive activity in the region, as well as limitations on Iran's development of its ballistic missile capability. 

The U.S. response to Iran's military escalation (see below) was twofold: it dispatched aircraft carriers to the region and decided to beef up its forces in the Gulf, while at the same time it expressed willingness to conduct indirect negotiations with Iran and took conciliatory measures to make this possible. These measures included delaying the aircraft carriers' entrance into the Persian Gulf, delaying the implementation of the sanctions on Iran's petrochemical industry, and the June 2, 2019 announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. was willing to negotiate with Iran without the preconditions that he had previously released.

Indirect Iran-U.S. negotiations via intermediaries are apparently already underway, but have led nowhere for either Iran or the U.S. due to the unbridgeable gap between the sides' demands and goals.

Although the U.S. rejected Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's April 24, 2019 proposal for negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal, it apparently did negotiate, and U.S. permanent resident and Lebanese citizen Nazar Zaka, detained by Iran since November 2015 on accusations of spying, was released June 11, 2019. Additionally, indirect negotiations are underway in the matter of determining the marine border between Israel and Lebanon, with Israel's and Hizbullah's participation, which require indirect American and Iranian involvement. 

These conciliatory U.S. measures have been presented by Iran as shows of weakness. Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in a speech at an athletes' conference in Tehran on June 1: "The same enemy who up to a year ago declared 'my aim is to destroy the regime of the Islamic Republic [of Iran]' announced clearly today that it does not want to do a thing against the [Iranian] regime. The same enemy who up to a few months ago stated that it is the greatest military power in the world, and that if it wanted it could break Iran's armed forces, announced today that it has no intention of fighting. Up to a few months ago, the Persian Gulf was a place where its aircraft carriers sailed freely, but today nothing is heard from its navy, and it has anchored in international waters, 300 and 400 miles [from the Persian Gulf]. During this time, we have shown that we are not submitting to the bullying and greedy superpowers. We are men of reason and negotiation, provided we sit around the negotiating table fully respected and in the framework of international law, not on orders to negotiate. If that is the case, we will not obey..."[1]

The head of the Iranian judiciary Ebrahim Raisi stated on June 3, 2019: "We see how America is begging to negotiate with Iran. This is further proof of the correct and clear-sighted position of [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei], who has said time and again: 'In the face of the excessive demands of the enemy, resistance is the only way for the Iranian nation to achieve victory.' Today America needs negotiations, and if we insist on our principles positions, the enemy will retreat, as the recent positions of U.S. officials indeed demonstrate."[2]

On June 2, 2019, Gen. Yahya Safavi, advisor and aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said: "America is only boasting politically and militarily, and in fact two weeks ago it began to retreat. We are ready for war. Today we are the superpower in the Middle East."[3]

Against the backdrop of the unbridgeable gap between Iran's and the U.S.'s positions, and following the failure of the various mediation channels used by Iran with the U.S. (see below), the IRGC-affiliated Javan daily published on its June 11 front page a cartoon depicting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who had recently visited Tehran in an effort to bridge between the sides, as Hitler carrying out the orders of his American and Israeli masters. This depiction of Maas' visit reflects the unlikelihood that indirect negotiations, whether on the JCPOA, on the issues of Iran's expansion in the region and its missiles, or on the continuation of the sanctions, will succeed, and also expresses the Iranian regime's frustration at its failure to compel the Trump administration to change its position vis-à-vis Iran.

Cartoon on front page of Javan: "The fascist expectation of the European emissary" (Source: Javan, June 11, 2019)

In light of the impasse, Iran is expected to escalate its violent activity. Signs that it is doing so can be seen in the upsurge of activity in various sectors, including in the Iran-Israel conflict in the Syrian and Gaza arenas.[4]

Also anticipated is an escalation in the conflict between Iran and the Gulf states, that is, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On June 4, Amir Abirabdollahian, special aide to the Majlis speaker, tweeted about Saudi Arabia:

"If #Saudi rulers do not stop aiding & abetting the #US in its economic war against #Iran, they must wait for its new and shocking decision. The clock is ticking so fast for the continuity of Saudi-#Emirati-#Israeli dirty policies.", June 4, 2019.

In its May 22, 2019 editorial, the regime-affiliated Kayhan daily called for destroying the Saudi regime.[5] Indeed, the Houthi militia is continuing to attack targets on Saudi soil. On June 12, 2019, the Houthis announced that they had attacked the Abha civilian airport, situated some 200 km from the Yemen-Saudi border, with a cruise missile; before that, on June 9, they attacked the Najran airport, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, with drones. Houthi spokesman Yahyah Sari'a also reported, on June 5, that 20 outposts along the Saudi border had been attacked and taken over by his forces.[6]

At a June 10 joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Maas, at the conclusion of Maas' Tehran visit, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif warned: "The tension in our region is because of America's economic war on Iran. The only way to reduce the tension in the region is to stop this economic war. You cannot expect the economic war on the Iranian people to continue [while] the people who began it or support it are protected."[7]

On June 12, Zarif's deputy Abbas Araghchi also conveyed a warning, in his meeting with Special Envoy for the Singapore Foreign Minister Zainul Abidin bin Mohamed Rasheed. He said: "America has entered into an economic war with Iran, and this is the root of the rise of the tension in the region. The American economic sanctions are in fact aimed against the security of the entire region; therefore, it is impossible to expect tranquility and security in the region without a ceasefire in [this] economic war [against us]."[8]

This morning (June 13, 2019), the escalation reached a new peak with the attack on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz.[9]

The Iran Condition For Negotiations: The Lifting Of The Sanctions

As noted above, in all its contacts with the U.S. since as early as 2015, the Iranian regime aims to get the sanctions on it lifted.[10] This was stressed most recently in statements by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on May 29, 2019 when he said: "The problem is [not the negotiations themselves but rather] setting the topic of the talks. We are not negotiating on every topic. I want to be clear: We will not negotiate on topics considered to be the honor of the revolution. We will not negotiate with anyone on our defensive capabilities. Because negotiation means a deal... not only sitting and talking... When they say [to us], 'give up and abandon the defensive options that strengthen you, it is impossible to negotiate on such a thing... This [is the essence of] negotiating with America; America's strategy is pressure, and negotiation is only secondary to pressure.

"The way to fight this [American] stratagem... is for the other side [i.e. Iran] to have means of pressure as well, and utilize them. This is the only way...  to stop the other side. We have the means of counter-pressure against the American pressure. These means are not military or anything like that, despite what they say and what they want to publicize. If a time comes when [military means] become necessary, we possess [such means], but this is not what we are considering [at the moment]. We have [other] means of pressure. The steps that the Supreme Council for National Security has taken and also announced [regarding the issues of uranium enrichment and heavy water] is one of them... That is, stopping [America's pressure] is not limited [to the steps being carried out] at the moment. The current steps are sufficient for now, [but] in the next stage, when the need arises, we can use other means of pressure..."[11]

Addressing the cabinet on May 29, 2019 the occasion of Qods Day, Iranian President Rohani said: "[The Americans] talk a lot, and there are many ups and downs in their talk. The steadfastness of the [Iranian] people has occasionally forced them to contradict themselves. Our yardstick is not what they say but what they do. When they stop their injustice towards the Iranian nation, lift the cruel sanctions, keep their promises and return to the negotiation table – which they themselves left and destroyed – they will not find their way blocked. The Iranian nation is alert and clever, and its yardstick is action."[12]

Iran's Modus Operandi: Using Terror And Diplomacy Simultaneously

Iran's usual mode of operation is to make simultaneous use of two means: its terror capabilities – which it calls "defense policy" (see Zarif's statements in the ABC interview below), implemented either by its own forces or by its proxies in the Middle East – and its diplomatic capabilities, to achieve its aims and improve its political and regional standing. This policy of employing terror, directly or via proxies, in varying degrees of intensity in order to achieve diplomatic aims, is Iran's regular strategy, as has been demonstrated again by the events of the past month in several arenas: in the UAE (the May 12 attack on the oil tankers), in Saudi Arabia (the May 12 Houthi attack on the Aramco oil facilities, as well as the May 26 Houthi attack on the aircraft hangars in Jizan on the Red Sea[13]), in Gaza (the activation of the Islamic Jihad to stage attacks on Israel on May 3, the day on which the U.S. retracted its exemption from sanctions for several countries still buying oil from Iran), and in Iraq (the May 19 firing of rockets at the Green Zone in Baghdad, which houses foreign embassies). Alongside its use of terror, Iran has proposed to negotiate a non-aggression pact with the Gulf states it has attacked. [14]

Both the terror and the diplomacy vis-à-vis the Gulf states are aimed at changing the policy of the U.S.,  which Iran is unable to confront directly. The goals of the terror attacks of the past month are the following: pressuring the U.S. to indirectly negotiate with Iran,[15] extracting an American commitment to refrain from attacking it, and securing the alleviation or lifting of the sanctions. The first two goals have in fact been achieved, but as for the sanctions, it seems that U.S. President Trump is unlikely to succumb to the Iranian pressure, and therefore Iran can be expected to renew its terror attacks, carried out by its proxies and targeting its Arab rivals and their global oil trade.    

This strategy explains the repeated Iranian attempts to initiate negotiations with the U.S. on Iran's own terms via various mediators – including Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Japan, Switzerland and Germany.[16] Foreign Minister Zarif visited Japan on May 17 and Baghdad on May 26, while his deputy Abbas Araghchi visited Oman and Kuwait and met with their respective  foreign ministers.[17] Furthermore, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Tehran on June 10 and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo came there two days later to mediate and convey messages.

May 26 tweet by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (

Iran's strategy was explicitly articulated by President Rohani's advisor Hessameddin Ashna, who said on May 21: "We want [to achieve] two things simultaneously. First, we will not allow a war to break out in this region. Second, we will not agree to remain under [U.S.] sanctions. Our answer to the U.S. is 'no to war and no to sanctions.' The U.S., which fears a war [with us], wants to force us to negotiate [with it]... The reply we gave [the Americans], and what our foreign policy [in the nuclear and diplomatic domains] and our defense strategy [a hint at the terror attacks attributed to Iran] accomplish, are the following: achieving a situation where America can neither frighten us with war nor maintain its sanctions [on us]."[18] 

Rohani advisor Hessameddin Ashna (source: Tasnim, Iran)

Iranian Threats

Iranian officials complement the diplomatic pressure with harsh threats directed against the U.S. For example, Foreign Minister Zarif used threatening language in a June 2, 2019 interview with ABC: "We don't differentiate between economic war and military war. The U.S. is engaged in war against us, and a war is painful to our participants. We have a very clear notion that in a war, nobody wins. In war, everybody loses the loss of some will be greater than the loss of others…

"'All options are on the table' belongs to the time when the use of force was legal, and that is about 100 years ago. What we say is that we exercise our self-defense. Self-defense is allowed. President Trump has announced that he is engaged in a war and economic war against Iran, and we have an obligation to defend our people against that economic war."[19]

Khamenei aide and advisor and former IRGC commander Gen. Yahya Safavi said on June 2: "The Americans have 25 military bases in the region, including the CENTCOM air command in Qatar, the ground forces command in Kuwait and the naval command in Bahrain. These bases house over 20,000 troops. The Americans know very well that this military force is in range of Iran's missiles. Moreover, in the Persian Gulf, all of the American navy [vessels, and the vessels of other] foreign [countries], are within range of the IRGC's surface-to-sea missiles. These missiles have a range of 300 km, i.e., can span the distance between the Iranian shore and the opposite shore.

"Trump has turned security into an economic [issue], and he will never launch any war unless it is economically profitable. Trump knows that any war against Iran will result in a military defeat [for the U.S.] and will also be very costly in economic terms.  The very first bullet fired in the Persian Gulf will cause the price of oil to skyrocket to over $100 [a barrel], and America, Europe and America's allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will not be able to bear oil prices of $100 [per barrel]...

  "If Trump asks the opinion of the U.S. army [generals], who have learned the lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they will certainly prevent him from fighting in Iran, for they know that Iran has a strategy of surprises and it will deliver a shocking blow [to the U.S.]. They know very well that Iran has kept many of its military strategies under wraps, and can deliver a shattering blow to foreign forces.

"The war being waged today is an economic and psychological one. The withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, and the oil sanctions, are actually [a kind of] war. I hope we will win this war as well, using the same strategy of resistance, soft war and internal unity.

"The strength of America, the Zionist regime and some of the Arab countries is steadily waning. The reactionary countries in the region [i.e., the Arab Gulf states] must know that the Americans have never been loyal to any of their slaves, such as the [Iranian] Shah, [Tunisian president] Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak, [Libyan president] Mu'ammar Qaddafi, etc., and they will not be loyal to their slaves in the future. The Americans will definitely leave the Middle East, as Khamenei said...

"Iran will be the neighbor of the states in the region forever, and if they are wise, they will not capitulate to America, which calls them 'milk cows' and extracts money from them.

"Iran always seeks to maintain friendly relations with the countries of the region, and Khamenei, too, has been stressing the unity of the Islamic nation for years. Our strategy is non-aggression towards our neighbors. Iran is even willing to sign a non-aggression pact with the neighboring countries. Foreign Minister [Zarif] mentioned this [only] recently. My suggestion is to sign a non-aggression pact with some of the countries and form a coalition with others. I hope that the countries of the region will regard America and the Zionists as their enemies, instead of Iran..."[20]

Responding to the dispatching of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, IRGC navy commander Alireza Tangsiri said on May 13: "We are absolutely ready [for its arrival], and if the enemy missteps, our first move will be to attack and destroy all the American gear and infrastructures in the region."[21]


* A. Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iran Media Project; Yigal Carmon is the president and founder of MEMRI.



[1], June 1, 2019.

[2], June 3, 2019.

[3], June 2, 2019.

[4] A video released May 30, 2019 by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's Al-Quds Brigades showed drones attacking an Israeli tank.

[6], June 5, 2019.

[7] Tasnim (Iran), June 10, 2019.

[8], June 12, 2019.

[9], June 13, 2019.

[11], May 29, 2019.

[12], May 29, 2019. It is important to note that the Iranian regime does not rule out negotiations with the West, providing it can ensure compliance with its demands in advance. This is what happened during the Obama administration, when the Iranian regime announced it would not negotiate with the U.S. over its long-range missiles, but eventually did enter negotiations in which it demanded in advance, and received, American approval for missiles with a range of up to 2000 km. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6100, Leaks From The Negotiation Room: Iran, Russia vs. U.S. In Verbal Clash Over Iran's Ballistic Missiles, July 10, 2015.

[13] In late May the Houthi Al-Masirah channel also reported a Houthi suicide drone attack on Saudi military infrastructure. Fars (Iran), May 26, 2019.  

[14] Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeated this proposal to the Gulf states during his May 25, 2019 visit to Baghdad. ISNA (Iran), May 26, 2019.

[15] Iran refuses to hold direct and open negotiations with the U.S., since this is perceived as capitulation, based on the ideology of the Islamic Revolution (which regards the U.S. as the "Great Satan") as well as from a political perspective. Secret and indirect negotiations are Iran's customary solution in times of crisis. The open nuclear negotiations came only after lengthy secret contacts during which the Obama administration accepted Iran's position in full, namely recognized Iran's right to enrich uranium, which was an Iranian precondition for launching the open negotiations. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6131, Iranian Senior Officials Disclose Confidential Details From Nuclear Negotiations: Already In 2011 We Received Letter From U.S. Administration Recognizing Iran's Right To Enrich Uranium, August 10, 2015.

[16] There have been numerous reports in the regional and global media about mediation efforts by countries inside and outside the region, including reports on a secret visit by Qatari Foreign Minister Muhammad Bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Aal Thani in Tehran in mid-May; willingness by Iraq and Kuwait to mediate between Iran and the U.S. in order to ease the tensions (Al-Hayat, London, May 27, 2019,, May 25, 2019,, May 21, 2019,, May 17, 2019), a visit by the Omani foreign minister in Tehran and contacts between him and the Americans (, May 21, 2019), and a report by the Iraqi Almaalomah news agency on a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister 'Adel 'Abd Al-Mahdi in Qatar and Kuwait as part of the mediation efforts between Iran and the U.S. This last report also mentioned mediation efforts by Russia, Qatar, Iraq, Switzerland, Oman and Japan (, May 20, 2019). The online daily reported on May 26 that Zarif's deputy Abbas Araghchi will relay a message to the Arab countries that Iran is interested in dialogue with them to resolve the problems, and also relay Iran's replies to proposals presented by Qatar's foreign minister during his visit to Tehran. 

[17] Tasnim (Iran), May 26, 2019, ILNA (Iran), May 27, 2019.

[18] Tasnim (Iran), May 21, 2019.

[19], June 2, 2019.

[20] Fars (Iran), June 2, 2019.

[21] Fars (Iran), May 13, 2019.

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