Gulf standoff: Iran calm in face of US pressure

Tehran (AFP) –


In face of soaring tensions with the United States, Iran has so far steered clear of inflammatory rhetoric, its leaders insisting the Islamic republic is not seeking a war with its arch-enemy.

"This face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war. Neither we nor (the US) seek war. They know it will not be in their interest," Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday.

"The definite decision of the Iranian nation is to resist against America," he added, before repeating his opposition to any negotiations with the United States.

A day later, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that he was "sure that Iran will want to talk soon".

For Amir Mohebbian, a conservative Iranian politician and analyst, Khamenei's words reflected Tehran's belief that Trump "is not ready to launch a large-scale war in a sensitive region".

Officials in Iran, especially commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's ideological army, often make comments deemed provocative in the West.

But in recent days they have chosen their words carefully.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Tokyo on Thursday that "we exercise maximum restraint" in the face of an "unacceptable" escalation by the United States.

Other officials have warned the US against attacking Iran, predicting it would fail, while insisting their own country is not hostile.

President Hassan Rouhani declared on Monday that Iran is "too great to be intimidated by anyone".

- 'No war, no negotiations' -

"The Iranian authorities are adhering the supreme leader's policy of 'no war, no negotiations' with the Trump administration," said Clement Therme, an Iran specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

"The rhetorical one-upmanship" on the Iranian side "is hindered by the limited military means" of the Islamic republic, the researcher said.

Iran has some 475,000 soldiers in its regular army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to the IISS.

But an international arms embargo has left it with an ageing and relatively small air force, a crucial weakness in any conflict.

Its economy crippled, Iran has limited means to increase defence spending.

That is in stark contrast to the United States, whose GDP is 47 times that of the Islamic republic, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have become even more tense in recent weeks, a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran said on May 8 that it had stopped respecting limits on its nuclear activities agreed under the 2015 nuclear accord.

The same day, the United States tightened the screws with further sanctions, before announcing it was boosting its military presence in the Middle East in response to alleged Iranian threats.

- Trump 'trap' -

Trump's approach was to apply ever more pressure on Iran, but the Islamic republic "has tried very hard not to fall into his trap", said the Iranian conservative Mohebbian.

So far, he said, Iran had acted "in a flexible and restrained manner to show the world that it's Trump who's trying to destroy the deal".

In April, the United States blacklisted Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a "foreign terrorist organisation".

In response, Iran declared the US a "state sponsor of terrorism" and American forces in the Middle East and beyond as "terrorist groups".

But any Iranian move against the US faces difficulties as it risks harming ties with neighbours, including Iraq, Therme said.

However, "the main factor in favour of maintaining a cold peace is the strong opposition to war among people in both countries," the analyst told AFP.

"In Iran, the Iran-Iraq war is still very much alive in the collective memory," he said.

"One of the main strengths of the Islamic republic is ensuring stability", in contrast to its war-torn neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq exhausted both sides and saw neither make any territorial gains.

It is estimated to have left a total 680,000 people dead or missing on both sides.