Amid the reshuffling of regional dynamics and the wider tug-of-war between the US and Russia, Tehran has reverted to its modus operandi of violence and chaos.

It is said that there is no animal more dangerous than one which has been forced into a corner. In the Middle East, in particular, no one exemplifies this reality better than Iran, which launched a salvo of ballistic missiles against the northern Iraqi city of Erbil early in the morning on March 13, striking near the US consulate and allegedly targeting Israeli assets.

But why would Tehran, seemingly on the cusp of securing a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—better known simply as the Iran nuclear deal—potentially torpedo their own chances at victory?

The answer is desperation.                                        

The Russian rug pull

While Iranian attacks in Iraq are not unusual, they normally occur through Tehran’s Shia militant proxies. What is unusual is that the Islamic Republic claimed direct responsibility for these attacks, putting itself on a direct collision course with the United States.

According to Iranian messaging and state media, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, was responsible for targeting both US and Israeli “Zionists’ strategic centre of plots and evil acts.”

The Iranian missile barrage was in response to an Israeli attack last Monday on Damascus that killed two IRGC colonels, triggering a vow of vengeance from Tehran that now appears to have been fulfilled.

The last time Iran did this was in retaliation to then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to take out Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, arguably Iran’s most powerful man after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. That attack, like this one, caused no fatalities.

But this goes deeper than merely being a continuation of Tehran and Tel Aviv’s tit-for-tat exchanges. After all, Israel has assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist, repeatedly hacked its facilities, and reportedly infiltrated the Islamic Republic’s propaganda outlets, drawing very little retaliation from Iran.

Rather, these events are more closely linked to the nuclear talks in Vienna. Iran have several times been reported as being “close” with the US, even being provided with sanctions relief to sweeten the deal. What nobody in the nuclear talks suspected, aside from the Kremlin, was just how rapidly Russian President Vladimir Putin would pull the rug out from both Iran’s and the US’ feet.

In retaliation for wide-ranging Western sanctions against Moscow for its incursion into Ukraine, and knowing that the nuclear deal was one of President Joe Biden’s key foreign policy priorities, Putin has attempted to link the sanctions his nation faces to the resolution of the sanctions faced by Iran.

While Iranian officials have been quick to downplay Russia’s motives and, in true form, denounced the US instead, Putin’s calculated move to shield his country by dangling Iran in front of the US essentially forced the Western parties to the JCPOA to declare a pause to the negotiations.

All these events would have been a rude awakening for Iran, which had thought it could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, it got caught between the wider tug-of-war between two great powers and decided it needed to revert to its usual modus operandi of violence and chaos by threatening to set the Middle East ablaze to ensure world powers take its nuclear demands seriously.

Iran is isolated once more

Another crucial matter is how Tel Aviv has been actively working to mend ties with Türkiye by dispatching President Isaac Herzog to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week. The two powers have also been discussing cooperation to build a new natural gas pipeline that can supply Europe and reduce European reliance on Russian (and Iranian) energy.

Israel has also been instrumental in thawing ties between Türkiye and the UAE that had been extremely tense since the Arab uprisings. Tel Aviv is clearly seeking a regional “reset” in a bid to convince powers to create a new status quo and to abandon the chaos left in the wake of the largely aborted Arab Spring revolutions. The idea is that stability, energy, and trade are more profitable than constant conflict and undermining one another.

Clearly, such an environment is anathema to Iranian ambitions. Tehran has since cancelled a new round of talks with Saudi Arabia, ordered its proxies to attack the UAE, and went so far as to stand back as Houthi Shia militants desecrated a memorial to Ottoman soldiers in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

This chaos creation has been Iran’s policy of choice in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and beyond. Whenever it has felt under pressure regionally or internationally, it has always reverted to tried and true methods of coercion, namely violence and the destabilisation of US allies and interests. Often, this comes at the massive loss of innocent lives.

The difference this time is that there is no way the White House will consider the Ukraine issue to be less of a priority than Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While it is extremely unlikely that Biden will do anything in the same manner Trump might have (indeed, the latest Biden administration statements have been stereotypically flaccid), it is also highly unlikely that he wants to appear to be kowtowing to Iranian aggression.

March 13’s missile attack on Erbil is the most direct message Iran has sent since 2020, and that message is clear: “Either the West commits to sanctions relief and recommits to the JCPOA, or we will drown the region in blood and chaos.”

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Source: TRT World