Javier Gil Guerrero is Professor of International Relations at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria
A few weeks before the Islamic Republic of Iran celebrates its forty-first anniversary, the regime's authorities have little to celebrate. After the coup that eliminated Soleimani at Baghdad airport on January 3 by an American drone, the Iranian regime responded on January 8 with a missile attack on several U.S. bases in Iraq. The only tangible result of the Iranian retaliation was the accidental shooting down by the Iranians themselves of a civilian plane in Tehran and the death of its 167 occupants. After days of deception and cover-up, the regime finally acknowledged responsibility for the shoot-down. Iranian streets, which days before were filled with people mourning Soleimani's death, are now filled with protesters outraged by the government's negligence and lies.
It is true that, since the revolution, Iran has often been on the ropes: eight years of brutal war with Iraq, international isolation, attacks and guerrilla warfare, economic sanctions..., the obstacle course that the regime has been running is long. However, in the light of recent events, it can be said that they are now rather cornered.
The first thing that has happened is an unmasking, a revelation that seriously jeopardizes the strategy followed by the regime in recent years. Namely, that Iran is an extremely dangerous country and that it is better not to confront it directly. Since its foundation, there has been a tacit understanding between the United States and Iran similar to that which America had with the Soviet Union: the response to attacks carried out by militias and terrorist groups financed and trained by Iran would not be directly against Iran. Thus, when Hezbollah, Houthis or the various Shiite militias in Syria or Iraq carried out attacks against U.S. forces or strategic sectors in the region, the U.S. either looked the other way or responded only with actions against those groups. Only if Iran intervened directly did the U.S. respond directly (the exceptional case of Operation Praying Mantis in the 1980s). The idea behind this logic is that Iran, with little to lose and great determination, would unleash a firestorm on the region if it was ever attacked. To avoid the larger conflict, the United States never retaliated directly against Iran for all its evil actions carried out indirectly in the region.
Trump has changed the equation. After a year in which Iran has shot down an American drone, attacked Saudi oil facilities, hijacked and sabotaged oil tankers and encouraged its militias in Iraq to attack American bases, Trump has finally decided to correct course and respond. The trigger was the death of an American contractor in Iraq at the hands of one of the militias supported by Iran, followed by the attempted assault on the American embassy in Baghdad by that militia. The surprise is that Trump's response was not limited to retaliation against the militia involved but against the Iranian strongman who coordinated all these actions: Soleimani.
His death was a real surprise to the regime and a clear disruption of the status quo that had prevailed in recent decades. A status quo favourable to Tehran which, either through cowardice or overzealousness in Washington, had allowed Iran to carry out all kinds of abuses in the region without suffering any consequences.Trump took off the gloves off and put the ayatollahs in a serious dilemma: their strategy had always been based on a big bluff. Trump has seen the Iranian bluff and has exposed the regime. If they did not unleash the apocalypse, they had always promised to unleash in the face of such an action, they would be seriously hurt. Neither inside nor outside Iran would people ever take the regime so seriously again. It would expose the weakness and powerlessness of a regime that has seen protests increase exponentially over the past three years. But, on the other hand, to respond to blood and fire with a president like Trump in the White House would be to invite the destruction of the regime.
After several days of threatening and feverish speeches about rivers of blood, planetary destruction and thousands of coffins, the answer finally came out on January 8 in the form mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. Rather than saving face, the regime exposed its ineptitude and cowardice. It made it clear that, despite the rhetoric, it was not ready for a confrontation with the United States. Above all, it made it clear that it was incapable of adequately managing a retaliatory attack. Pledges of revenge have only led to the death of 138 Iranians (56 in a stampede at Soleimani's funeral and 82 on board the downed plane) and no Americans.
With Soleimani's death, Trump has reminded the world of the true dimension of the Iranian threat: they are still a small, unstable and underdeveloped country that has much to lose in a confrontation with the United States. This is something that is obvious, but which many foreign policy experts seem to have forgotten. The Ayatollah is naked. And from the protests, his fellow citizens seem to have taken note of it.
Translated by Blanca Domínguez