Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Iran: Talk Big but Wave a Small Stick

Torture at ringside! This is how Antoine Blondin, perhaps the greatest contemporary French sports writer, described the agonies of hard-core fans of combat sports. They are glued to the ringside, watch the fight, see or imagine that they see the mistakes of the adversaries in the ring, wish they were in the ring to unleash the right punches and feel frustrated that all they could do is to shout “Oh no! Oh no!”

The mood described by Blondin also reflects the feelings of armchair generals who could tell you where Cyrus the Great, Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, not to mention Field Marshal von Paulus went wrong. Vicarious sorrow is as potent in fomenting the melancholy behind the farce as the pleasure offered by voyeurism.

That reflects the current mood in the Islamic Republic leadership in Tehran. For decades they have talked of the “final battle” against the “Zionist enemy” and the American “Great Satan”, mocking everyone around for not joining the Tehran-led “Resistance Front” or, at least deal a blow to “Global Arrogance” and its regional allies.

The “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has missed no opportunity to mock or lambast Arabs, including Palestinians, for not waging war on “our common enemies.”

Last week, Islamic Revolutionary Guard spokesman Gen. Ramadan Sharif claimed that, had it not been for the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his “military genius”, ISIS would have created a second Israel in the Middle East. The first Israel was easily created because there was no Gen. Soleimani in 1948.

For four decades Tehran has hosted annual “End of Israel” and “A World Without America” conferences, spending huge sums of money by inviting professional gate-crashers from all over the world, to fly first-class, sojourn in 5-star hotels and receive gifts of caviar an Persian rugs, to make blood-curdling speeches against the Zionists and their “Great Satan” supporters.

The “Supreme Guide” published a book and asserted that Israel will “disappear” in 25 years’ time. The Tehran Municipality installed an electronic clock to count the minutes until Israel’s promised disappearance.

In 2018 a frustrated Khamenei wondered aloud why the Palestinian groups he had funded and armed did nothing against the “Zionist foe”. He also advised Palestinians in the West Bank to start an armed uprising against the Palestinian Authority.

And yet, all the time the “Zionist foe” had a free hand to assassinate regime operatives in Tehran and kill IRGC officers and their Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Afghan mercenaries in Syria whenever and wherever it wished. For fear of being dragged into a bigger conflict that his regime cannot handle, the “Supreme Guide” kept his surrogates in Lebanon, Syria and North Yemen on a tight leash.

He had found his comfort zone in rhetoric-land: Bark aloud but lie low.

Then on 7 October something happened to upset the ayatollah’s comfort zone: Hamas launched the deadliest attack that Israel had suffered since its inception. At first, the ayatollah was tempted by what is called “tail-coat hanging” in politics, that is to say tag yourself to the side hat seems to be winning. The assumption was that the new round in Hamas-Israel fighting will end the same way the previous ones had ended, that is to say after a few days with both sides settling for a ceasefire.

This was why Khamenei’s top military adviser Gen. Yahya Rahim Safawi, implicitly presented the 7 October attack as an operation designed under Iranian supervision. But once it had become clear that this time things would be different and that Israel wouldn’t settle for a draw, the ayatollah ordered a quick change of tune. The new narrative went something like this: The attack by Hamas was splendid and we helped by providing training, funds and arms but were in no way involved in planning let alone executing it.

Adopting a low profile, the ayatollah also ordered that no pro-Hamas marches be organized in the Islamic Republic. Even Tabriz, Iran’s third largest city which is a sister-city to Gaza was ordered to forget the sisterhood and behave as if it had never heard of Gaza or Hamas.

The low profile tactic created another problem.

The Islamic Republic which markets itself as the “the new emerging great power” which in the words of the daily Kayhan is going to flush the US out of the Middle East, destroy Israel and offer mankind a new world order, could remain a neutral bystander in a conflict that could change the face of the region.

Pressure from radical elements in the region and their sympathizers in the West forced the ayatollah to do something. Continuing his cautious approach, he ordered his Lebanese and Iraqi mercenaries to fire a few rockets at Israel to show that Hamas hasn’t be abandoned by the “Resistance Front”. Tehran needed TV clips to show that its pawns in the region are moving without, however, provoking a major Israeli or American retaliation.

When it became clear that such gesticulations won’t deceive many, the ayatollah ordered his pawns in Sanaa and Hodeidah to open a new front by firing at ships passing through Bab al-Mandab. An IRGC editorialist even claimed that Houthi missiles had turned the Israeli port of Eilat, 2,000 kilometers away, into “piles of rubble” as all the city’s inhabitants had fled. In other words, “The Resistance Front” wasn’t the meek mouse that some assumed.

However, although it angered China and India whose trade with Europe and North America uses Bab al-Mandab, the Houthi sideshow didn’t silence voices, including some inside Iran, wondering why the Islamic Republic which, again according to Kayhan, has “mind boggling military achievements” and is now one of the five most powerful nations on earth is acting like a shy debutante.

The fact that ISIS was able to launch a carnage operation in the middle of a solemn official ceremony in honor of Gen.Solemaini who” wiped ISIS off the face of the earth” led to suspicions that, like the wizard of Oz, the ayatollah may be a good man, but a bad liberator of Palestine and redeemer of mankind.

The ayatollah took the spiral stair from tragedy to farce when he ordered a missile attack on what he said was “the headquarters of Mossad” in the Middle East. Gen Amir-Ali Hajizadeh claimed that the attack “was ordered by Imam Khamenei in person.” Within minutes, however, it was established that the target had been the home of a Kurdish Iraqi businessman and the victims were him, his 11-month-old child, his Filipino cook and a business associate.

With egg on their faces, Tehran leaders then tried to divert attention by ordering missile attacks on targets in the Pakistani Baluchistan desert.

The message is “The Resistance Front” is doing something without knowing what it is doing and to what purpose.