The seizure of an oil tanker bearing the British flag by the naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on July 21 is indicative of the ongoing tension between Iran and the US and its allies. Through this move, the Iranian authorities have shown once again that they are determined to emphasise Iran’s hegemonic role in the Middle East and to strongly underline Iran’s regional power in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. As tensions have risen between the US and Iran over recent months, the absence of a diplomatic back channel to defuse incidents and potential blow-ups is being felt. We can add to this the fact that the US has not taken any visible retaliatory action, denying Tehran an opportunity for the showdown it seems to want.
General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr, the US Central Command commander gave an explanation for this measured American approach by saying: “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of some form of overreaction. So our response is going to be very calm, taken in concert with the international community.” But the US-Iran cat and mouse game has been analysed on the Iranian side as a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where the mouse appears cleverer and more astute than the cat. As a matter of fact, during a gathering on May 23 in Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei invoked the US-Iran tensions by making an allusion to the Hanna-Barbera classic. “The US has committed all kinds of animosity to hit the Islamic Republic and has plotted various political, economic, military and propaganda schemes,” Khamenei said. “All their plots have failed — just like Tom from the well-known Tom and Jerry cartoon — and they will fail again in the future.” Iran continues a tactical escalation, shooting down a US surveillance drone last month, attaching mines to tankers and now seizing ships in the Strait of Hormuz, while Donald Trump is clearly avoiding military confrontation with Iran, especially as he heads into an election year.
Consequently, Iran wants to show off its military capacities, at home and abroad, to demonstrate that it can get around US sanctions and continue to develop its hegemony in the region. This is why, from January to July, Iran has been conducting drone exercises and has said that it even monitored the movements of a US aircraft carrier. On July 10, Iranian drones reportedly were used against a Kurdish dissident group in northern Iraq, after Iran accused the group of killing members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The new IRGC drone was used three weeks after Iran downed a sophisticated American drone over the Gulf of Oman.
Iranians have also been helping the Houthi rebels to launch drone attacks on Saudi Arabian airports near the Yemen border. Taken as a whole, the Islamic regime’s drone technology and its immediate use by the proxies of Iran, like the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis, show that the authorities in Tehran have the military ability to threaten the US and its allies. This shows clearly that Iran’s military footprint is growing across the Middle East.
Iran’s military actions and the silence of the American cat, show that the Trump administration’s weapon of choice is still hard economic sanctions, while Tehran’s only remaining option is using its wide array of asymmetrical military capabilities through its Iranian Revolutionary Guards. As a result, it is clear that President Trump is following the same policy that he used in the showdown with North Korea, China and other countries. However, Iran proves to be a tougher challenger and as in the case of Jerry the mouse, Iranian regime is not an easy enemy to defeat. Iran is clearly willing to resort to violent means and push the situation to the brink of war, even though the balance of power is largely in the US’s favour.
This is the main reason why the European countries, who have been at odds with Trump and his administration over the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), reacted strongly against Tehran’s decision to start suspending clauses of the agreement and taking steps to increase uranium enrichment levels and reserves. This said, the Iranian leaders will certainly not return to the negotiating table to reach a new deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and its regional policies. Iranians feel stronger in their mouse and cat game, especially when they are backed by the Russian dog.
Actually, a few days ago, the Russian foreign ministry urged the remaining signatories to the JCPOA to continue cooperating and help save the agreement. However, while Russia continues blaming Washington for the failure of the Iran nuclear agreement, some Chinese customers are still buying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Iran. China accounted for 3,46,000 tonnes, or 80 per cent, of Iran’s LPG exports in May, since Iranian supplies have been among the cheapest in the world as customers from Japan to South Korea turned away from doing business with the country following the US’s sanctions.
In the iconic American cartoon Tom and Jerry, Jerry always gets the upper hand. But this situation might not last long for the Iranian mouse, especially in the absence of a substantive and successful diplomacy between the two countries. Evidently, the Boltons and Pompeos of the Trump administration will not always be silent over the American president’s decision to call off retaliatory air strikes over Iran’s downing of a US surveillance drone. As for Trump, he cannot continue saying “America first,” without doing whatever it takes, however destructive, to show that Tom the cat is not the loser of the game.
The writer is professor-vice dean, Jindal Global University