Has Iran reached its peak? It increasingly feels that way. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, through the war in Syria since 2012, and with the lifting of sanctions in 2015, Tehran’s star has been ever rising. Now, though, the country’s leadership faces a crisis.
Donald Trump has decided to take Tehran on unilaterally, egged on by hardliners around him, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. They march in step with groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the UAE-backed Foundation for Defence of Democracies, as well as the Israeli government, which is channelling its soft power through Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, and their close ties to the hard-line Jewish settler movement.
The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is being resisted by a Europe united against Trump’s protectionist trade policies, notably on steel tariffs, and his wrecking ball approach to foreign policy. Nevertheless, the importance of the American economy and the pressure it can use to bully Europe will be crucial to how Iran’s economy will look in a year’s time, because Trump is also pressuring SWIFT, the international transactions arbiter based in Belgium, to cut off access to the international cross-border payments system for Iranian entities.
SWIFT reports to Brussels, and is determined to hold its own against the US diplomatic onslaught. Remarkably, sanctions against the board of SWIFT are now being considered by the US Treasury in what can only be called an extraordinary act of transatlantic bullying. There are obviously wrecking balls at work on the world order, and then there is Donald Trump.
There are troubles for Iran in Iraq too. The feted and feared Major General Qasem Soleimani has just been in Baghdad trying desperately to prevent populist Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr from forming a government as the major winner in last week’s election. Before the Iraqis went to the polls, Iran stated openly that it would not allow this to happen; Tehran views Al-Sadr as a threat to its growing regional hegemony. Nevertheless, he has swept close to complete victory, crucially on an Iraqi nationalist platform which attempts to unite the country in the wake of Daesh, emphasising particularly the role that his fighters played in defeating the group.
Some Sunni figures remain sceptical that Al-Sadr is as independent from Iran as he claims. Still, the man who once oversaw roadside bomb attacks against thousands of American soldiers is being considered as a plausible ally against Iranian influence in the region. Al-Sadr is driven in his anti-Iranian sentiment principally by his theory that the death of his father was a Tehran intelligence operation. Two years ago, he led protesters in chants of “Iran out” in an Occupy-style protest outside the Prime Minister’s office.
Iran is also losing its fight to support the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long been duplicitous in their approach to the Palestinian conflict, talking about their sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight and sending a bit of aid now and again, but assisting the Israelis actively on a range of issues, albeit covertly.
The arrival of Trump has seen that secretive alliance brought into the open. Now Riyadh, Washington and Jerusalem are seen to be collaborating together. The US Embassy has been moved to Jerusalem; Palestinians in Gaza are again being massacred by Israel; and Iranian support for Hamas is looking fruitless.
So too is Iranian support for Hezbollah. Reports now suggest that the group is facing a serious financial crisis, after an intelligence-led attack on its funding, co-ordinated between European intelligence agencies and their North American counterparts. German spooks and government officials have played a crucial role in this.
Iran’s ally Russia is also on the back foot. Sanctions are pressing Moscow hard and the economy is teetering. With all that to consider, Assad’s ever-closer victory in Syria, for which Iran will claim much credit, will taste bittersweet.
The rise of Al-Sadr in Iraq has fractured the so-called Shia crescent. Of course, elements remain, notably in Lebanon, but Iran’s regional project looks increasingly at risk.
It now faces powerful enemies in a united Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Two out of these three have nuclear weapons already, and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has announced that he will begin his own enrichment programme soon, with American support.
The great victory of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal now seems a distant memory. In any case, the promised economic boon did not arrive for the Iranian people. The hardliners are strengthened against the moderates, saying that they have been proven right and that the United States can never be trusted (and, it seems, they have a point). A domestic political crisis, on top of increasing unrest in rural areas, is mounting. Iran has had a good decade or so, but now it looks like its luck has changed, for the time being at least.