U.S.-Iranian tensionIranʹs wartime commander
"We assume that in the political geography of the world, a reality called America does not exist. That is our hypothesis and we live with this hypothesis. You may die for all I care on account of such ignorance and animosity." Although this sentence is devoid of political reason and two years old, it has to be taken seriously today. Very seriously, in fact, if you want to understand where the world is heading. For the man who once said this sentence was named head of the Revolutionary Guards two months ago by Ali Khamenei.
It was 21 September 2017 when this insane sentence fell as an official response to Donald Trump. Two days earlier, before the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S. President had described the leadership of the Islamic Republic as a lawless gang that his predecessor Obama should never have trusted.
Following Trump's speech, an odd silence – by Iranian standards – prevailed in the official Iranian media for two days. The attack was unusually harsh and unexpected. During the U.S. presidential election campaign, Tehran's rulers had made it clear several times that they preferred Trump to his rival Hillary Clinton as president. And then this hate tirade. After two days of numbed shock, the hour struck for Hossein Salami, then vice-commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
An appellation full of symbolism
And Salami didn't disappoint. He had always been known for pompous speeches and exaggerated sayings. That's why neither he nor his sentence about America's non-existence was taken particularly seriously. On the Internet there is a long list of ludicrous statements by Salami – not only about Israel, the USA and Europe, but also about the "counter-revolutionaries" in his own country. The collection is intended to expose him as a master of empty slogans. Salami has also been called the "commander of the gossips".
But the days of such mockery are now over. Salami has ascended to the highest level of power. Since 21 April 2019 he has been Supreme Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The term of office of his predecessor General Jafari was not yet over when Revolutionary Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Salami.
Everyone wondered what Khamenei was up to when he appointed such a man to be commander of the country's most powerful and important institution at such a time – a time that obviously knows only one direction: escalation and war. Two weeks earlier, Donald Trump had declared the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation and announced new and tougher sanctions against Iran. Now in Iran, the loudest and – at least verbally – most radical guardsman has become the head of the corps, which is effectively a state within a state. What's more, the Revolutionary Guards are the real state.
"The beginning of American defeat"
In Iran, everyone understood Salami's appointment as being precisely what Khamenei intended to indicate: a striking sign of impending escalation. " Your appointment marks the beginning of American defeat," wrote General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Army, in his congratulatory letter to Salami. Only two months have passed since that letter. An American defeat is not yet in sight, but a war with the USA seems to have become possible. This has not only been caused by Trump's policy, but also by the intransigence of Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man and supreme commander of all armed forces.
As such, he has banned any negotiations with Trump. All previous attempts at international mediation have therefore been fruitless. Neither the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas nor the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been able to bring about a rethink in Tehran. And Khamenei alone decides what to do in this dangerous escalation situation - including the shooting down of the American drone last Thursday.
Neither negotiations nor war
But why is he doing this? Khamenei has publicly declared time and again that there will be no war. Anyone who claims that Iran has only two alternatives, war or negotiation, is a traitor. Iran has a third possibility: resistance. Trump would do well not to start a war with Iran. That is the official line.
The path that the revolutionary leader wisely took leads to greatness and invincibility, wrote the newspaper Javan, the organ of the Revolutionary Guards, last Sunday. The dawn of 20 April 2019 is a historic turning point in Asia, the newspaper continued. And everyone knows what is meant by that: it was the time when the U.S. drone was shot down.
Read the official media and listen to the decision-makers in Tehran, and you will come to the inevitable conclusion that those in the administration are prisoners of their own slogans. As if the non-existence of America, of which Salami spoke, was actually his maxim and that of his boss Khamenei.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who lived in the USA for more than two decades, cannot afford to speak of its non-existence. He has other explanations ready: "The 'B triangle' was, is and will continue to be to blame for everything that happens. It was behind Trump's intention to back out of the nuclear treaty, it is responsible for tightening sanctions against Iran, it certainly has something to do with the attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and it will have to bear the main responsibility for anything bad that may soon happen in the Middle East," Zarif said on 14 June, the day after the attacks on three oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Benjamin Netanyahu, John Bolton and Mohammad Ben Salman are the three legs of this triangle.
But since the U.S. drone was shot down, this triangle is no longer usable. Zarif must look for a new one and preferably one with even more corners. Does the Iranian Foreign Minister really have an overview of everything and everyone who wants a war with Iran? And if so, does he have the power to prevent it? Zarif is an expert on the USA and, like Trump, he tweets incessantly. He makes it clear that he wants to talk. But he is not taken seriously – neither in America nor at home.
On the brink of the abyss
Zarif now finds himself teetering on the brink of the abyss, where he almost certainly never envisaged himself standing. Meanwhile everyone else is now also so close to the edge that they could topple over at any moment. In doing so, they will – intentionally or otherwise – drag the region down with them and shake the global political constellation to its foundations. The last forty years bear testimony to the fact that the rulers of the Islamic Republic are past masters of secret diplomacy.
But times have obviously changed. In Trump, they must confront someone who craves the limelight. He wants pictures. And if it isn't one with Ali Khamenei, the most powerful man in Tehran, at least with Hassan Rouhani, the powerless president of Iran.
Yet Iran is incapable of delivering the kind of symbolic images Trump is looking for at the moment. Whatʹs more, it constitutes more than mere symbolism. It is about Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen: everything the Islamic Republic like to call its "strategic depth". An expression that was first used by Hossein Salami, by the way, when he was not yet Supreme Commander of the Guards, but professor at the Revolutionary Guardʹs military academy.