LONDON — Before we consider why Iran may or may not have attacked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week (it definitely did), whether it attacked four other tankers in international waters near the United Arab Emirates last month (it probably did), and why it shot down a United States drone this week that it claimed had entered Iranian airspace (which it likely did, but the U.S. denies), let’s talk about the man in Tehran who calls the shots on decisions like these: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
You probably know that Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, meaning he has the final say on all matters of state. You probably know that he has been running the country from the shadows for 30 years, that he preaches moderation in public, and that he routinely denounces Western-style capitalism as corrupt. What you probably don’t know is that as the latest round of sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration bite further into Iran’s economy, Khamenei — along with his fellow ruling imams and a small group of state-connected cronies — are desperate to have their fellow countrymen focus on anything but them.
What average Iranians know is that the political and economic elite never suffer the consequences of their failed economic leadership. That’s especially true of the Supreme Leader: thanks to a secret hedge fund he built by methodically seizing the properties of thousands of average Iranians over the past 30 years, as an exhaustive 2013 Reuters investigation revealed, Khamenei is the bearded Bill Gates of Iran, with a net worth estimated at $95 billion. Khamenei is far from the only holy oligarch — let’s call them “holygarchs” — who have gorged themselves on state resources the past 40 years.
Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi reportedly rode the illegal sugar trade to a $100 million fortune. Thanks to some super-profitable mines that the state mysteriously transferred to his foundation, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani is worth millions, too. It’s why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called them “hypocritical holy men.” And it’s not just the holygarchs. Last year, Atefeh Eshraghi, a great-granddaughter of the spiritual leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was photographed in London carrying a $3,800 Dolce & Gabbana handbag.
Not to be outdone, the 25 year-old son of a retired Revolutionary Guard commander posted photos online of his pet tiger and the extravagant birthday party he threw for his two year-old daughter. Meanwhile, the son of Iran’s former ambassador to Venezuela uploaded photos of himself driving a $350,000 Bugatti and lighting a cigarette with a lit dollar bill while sneering at the poor, “Instead of envying me, go make some money. If you can’t make money and you can’t make a living, die. Full Stop!” Those are just two of the dozens of decidedly un-Shiite-like luxury lifestyles featured on a social media site of the rich kids of Tehran, whose parents “made their money” mostly by skimming it from the state.
Meanwhile, the rest of Iran, as one Iranian put it, “has serious difficulty getting diapers for their children.” After President Donald Trump withdrewthe U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement in May of 2018, his Administration imposed some of the harshest sanctions ever imposed on Iran: forbidding U.S. companies to engage the Islamic Republic, threatening the banks and companies of U.S. allies who trade with Iran, and doing everything in its power to bring Iran’s lucrative oil exports to a complete stop.
The sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy. The Iranian currency has lost 80 percent of its value since last year, inflation has climbed over 50 percent, and the World Bank projects that the Iranian economy will shrink by another 4.5 percent in 2019. As one Iranian recently put it to the head of a visiting U.S. peace organization, “Our bank savings have been wiped out, rents go up every month, and the price of food increases every single day, while most salaries stay the same.”
For a nation that saw anti-government demonstrations as recently as 12 months ago over the growing divide between rich and poor, a brighter spotlight shined on the wealthy few while millions suffer is a ticking time bomb. That, in fact, is exactly what the hard-liners in Washington like Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have always dreamed: that if average Iranians are pushed far enough while they see their corrupt leaders eating Persian nougat in palatial comfort, the “people” will rise up and force a regime change.
Having the Iranian people grow so desperate that they violently turn on the ayatollahs and their cronies is a risk that Khamenei cannot take. Fortunately for him, there is a never-miss, sure-fire wild card the mullahs can play that is guaranteed to draw the attention of average Iranians away from the corrupt elite and toward a higher, unifying purpose: the credible fear of a U.S. invasion.
Which brings us back to the not-so-mysterious reasons why I think Iran allegedly directed its navy to attack the tankers and down the drone: because it is doing just enough prevaricating to shift the focus of the Iranian people away from the mullahs and toward the fear of U.S. invasion. In the process, it has naturally attracted the attention — the incompetent, irrational, inept, almost always incomprehensible attention — of the U.S. President. Khamenei is literally playing a Trump card in the Persian Gulf.
Of course, Donald Trump, baited bully, is all too happy to comply, in the most ignorant way possible. It’s difficult to imagine any other U.S. president, let alone Dwight Eisenhower or even Bill Clinton, announce to the world that he had ordered a retaliatory strike against Iran for the downing of the drone but then cancelled it at the last minute. It says a lot that the main question today is whether Trump will “bumble” the U.S. into war with his mouth. What makes Iran’s strategy even more risky is that there are hard-liners on both sides who have clamored for war between the U.S. and Iran for decades.
You can already hear the hard line at work, whether it is Pompeo reportedly asserting in a closed House briefing in May a relationship between al Qaeda and Iran to suggest that Congress approved war with Iran in 2001 when it authorized military force against al Qaeda and its branches. Or Pompeo (again) telling Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in May that a single attack on any U.S. troops by an Iranian proxy in Iraq or Syria that took one American life would draw a U.S. response. Or General Hossein Salami, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, saying this week that the downing of the drone sent a “clear message” to America that Iran does “not have any intention for war … but we are ready for war.”
But when you look closer, you realize that each action by Iran is calibrated to provoke just enough of a response from the US to make war look imminent without actually making it likely. The tankers, after all, were all attacked above the water line — the goal was not to sink — and none carried American flags. The drone was unmanned. Iran’s recent threats to abandon the nuclear agreement and re-start its nuclear program could have come with a pledge to enrich uranium at the 20 percent level, which would shorten its timeline to a bomb within the year. It did not.
The same is true of the U.S. In response to these moves, the U.S. moved an aircraft carrier within striking distance, announced it was sending an additional 1,000 troops to the region, and immediately called out Iran for the attacks. But it didn’t launch missiles; or deploy troops. Comically, the Trump Administration called on Iran to abide by the nuclear agreement. Like most bullies, Trump talks tough at all times, but he’s afraid of getting the U.S. involved in another Middle East war.
Thus far, neither side has miscalculated. Iran has promised to escalate the conflict if some sanction relief isn’t given by July 7, putting the focus squarely on the U.S. instead of its own leadership.
The best thing that could happen between now and then is for the Trump Administration to take a page from previous presidents from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush and establish a private, back channel between Washington and Tehran — similar to initial overtures made to the second Bush Administration from Iran in the wake of the attacks of September 11th — to see if a compromise might be reached.
Eventually, maybe Trump and Khamenei will meet face to face. It would be quite a meeting: between the billionaire who talks like a pauper and the pauper who talks like a billionaire — proving, once again, that in the Persian Gulf, things are not always what they may seem.