Iran is feeling the full brunt of US hostility, domestic political wrangling, and terror attacks. The Iranian people meanwhile are suffering under a buckling economy - where is this all heading?

Over the past two weeks Iran has scored two major diplomatic victories against the United States.  

A key new agreement was reached on September 29 with the EU and five world powers—UK, France, Germany, Russia and China—that would facilitate Iran’s trade transactions within the EU without the use of US dollars.  

Additionally Russia, China and India have given their tacit approval to finding ways of dealing with Iran directly. India has already ordered 9 million barrels of oil from Iran in November.

And on Wednesday the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nation’s highest court, ordered the United States to lift some sanctions against Iran that affect imports of humanitarian goods and products.

Yet, the ballistic missile attack on the eastern Syrian border town of Hajin on October 1 signified a major shift in Iran’s military policy towards more open confrontation in the Middle East. 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) was shaken by the direct assault on its personnel in Ahvaz on September 22 and Hijan was its retaliation. It was not merely to “annihilate” militant groups that had been involved. It was also to showcase Iran’s missiles reach and its disregard for the US ultimatums.

Iran’s military officials warned of more to come while hailing the precision of the missiles and the fact that they were all home grown. The attack was “only the first level” according to the chief of staff of the army, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri.

Major Baqeri did not spell out what Iran would do but it is clear that over the past decade Iran has invested heavily in Syria, Iraq and Yemen where it has been indirectly involved with major military action.

IRGC intelligence has long studied these countries and knows them well. Most crucially, effective networks of operatives and proxies have been created to support intelligence gathering not just for military purposes but also for political manoeuvring. 

It can now use these channels for more open confrontations if challenged by the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia. 

The significance of Ahvaz

The Ahvaz attack was not the first time that the Iranian establishment has been taken by surprise. Two terrorist attacks in 2017, both in Tehran were simultaneously carried out by five terrorists belonging to Daesh. Moreover, mass demonstrations have at least twice previously seriously challenged the legitimacy of its leadership.

Yet the attack in Ahvaz symbolised what Iran fears the most: a combination of internal and external forces targeting directly its most powerful machinery of domination - the IRGC. 

In the Ahvaz attack Iran saw not just the hands of Daesh or Saudi-Arabia-linked al Ahwaziya, which had claimed responsibility, but a wider network of operatives at home, across its borders and further beyond. 

On September 9 Iran launched a missile attack on the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and on September 28  IRGC  claimed to have dismantled “a terrorist cell near Pakistan Border.”

While these operations illustrate its nervous disposition over the border areas Iran must also be concerned about serious security lapses inside its own intelligence and military apparatus. 

How did the assailants enter with guns and explosives inside heavily fortified locations such as the Islamic Consultative Assembly, and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini (in 2017) or the IRGC military parade in Ahvaz?

There may even be infiltration within the military. One of the first reactions after Ahvaz attack came from the IRGC spokesman, Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif, who said the regular army rather than the elite Revolutionary Guard had been in charge of organising the parade.

That is why Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for vigilance when addressing hundreds of Bassij paramilitary volunteers on Thursday.  

The Bassij Force is part of the IRGC and defined as the main instrument to repress domestic dissent. His address indicated that he expects more to come.

“Those inside the country who propagate that there is deadlock and no way out other than kneeling to the US … are committing treason” said Khamenei. 

“We will defeat sanctions,” he said. “Defeating sanctions is defeating the US.”

Yet Iran’s leader knows well that defeating sanctions would be hard with a crushing economy, rising prices, ongoing protests and lowering oil revenues. He fears that the forthcoming US sanctions on November 4, targeting the oil industry, would cause further dissent and mass demonstrations.

Yet, Iran is calculating that President Trump may change course.  

“All doors are open,” said Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif responding to a questions about the possibility of talks with the United States. 

“Time is on our side,” he said in a BBC interview.

Only time will tell if Iranian people have any more patience under increasingly devastating economic conditions.

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