Iran’s Strategic Patience Dilemma

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Israel’s recent strike on an Iranian consulate put Tehran in a difficult spot.

Iran faces a dilemma in the wake of the Israeli attack last week on its consulate in Damascus, which killed seven senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s under pressure at home to respond to the strike but is concerned about the possibility of igniting a broader conflict. The escalation comes amid repeated direct attacks on Iranian targets that could weaken its regional power. Over the past few months, Israel has been stepping up attacks on Iranian assets, specifically in Syria. Since October, the rules of engagement between Israel and Iran’s so-called axis of resistance have tilted in Israel’s favor. Israel’s military does not believe that Iran will launch a direct military strike in retaliation for the Damascus attack, but it has taken exceptional precautions by calling up air force reservists and canceling military leaves. The assumption is that Iran will bide its time and pursue a policy of “strategic patience.”

Patience as Policy

In 2015, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was the first to articulate a policy of strategic patience. Obama stressed that the United States’ unique set of challenges required perseverance and used this policy to pursue goals related to democracy, human rights, energy security, climate and nuclear security.

The U.S. applied this strategy in dealing with North Korea by maintaining political dialogue with Pyongyang while keeping open the option of military action. China has also used it with Taiwan, as Beijing awaits the right time to reunite the island with the mainland. In both cases, the United States and China can impose their conditions on their opponents, even though they prefer not to antagonize them. By definition, this concept can be used only by countries that enjoy a surplus of military power over their opponents and have other options but prefer to exhaust diplomatic means before resorting to decisive military force.

Iran, however, cannot prevail over the United States and Israel. It instead uses its regional agents to distract its opponents, pushing them to recognize it as a legitimate partner in managing the region’s affairs while falsely asserting that they are independent in making their decisions.

Iran does not see either country as an eternal enemy, even though Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 designated the United States as the Great Satan and Israel as the absolute evil. These labels are not necessarily historical inevitabilities but rather convenient slogans that can be waived under opportune situations. After the nuclear agreement in 2015, Iranian authorities removed many of the revolutionary slogans that described the U.S. as the Great Satan from the walls of Iranian cities.

Iran began to use the concept of strategic patience after the U.S. assassinated Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020. Since then, Tehran has opted for a subtle conflict with the United States rather than direct confrontation. It has not taken actions that could seriously harm U.S. interests; it even warned the Trump administration before striking American targets in Iraq to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Over the past four years, it has also tried to strike back at the United States using Iraqi militias.

Resisting Pressure to Retaliate

However, recent developments in the Middle East indicate that Tehran actually suffers from strategic deadlock. Iran once again faces the problem of wanting to respond to deter Israel from launching more attacks while also being careful to avoid an all-out war. Tehran believes it must respond to show its readiness for confrontation but in a calculated manner without causing an escalation or inflicting casualties. Its hesitation to retaliate is an indication that the Islamic Revolution is nothing but a paper tiger.

Tehran has repeatedly promised a response. The IRGC issued a statement reassuring the Iranian people that it will make Israel regret its actions in Damascus. Iran’s joint chief of staff, Mohammad Bagheri, said in a speech during the funeral of senior Quds Force commander Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was killed in the strike, that Israel’s demise is near. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said recently that an Iranian response is inevitable – though he did not specify whether it would come from inside Iran or from its Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened Israel with defeat.

These statements, however, are mere chest-thumping. Iran does not want its proxies in the Middle East to perceive it as weak because it would erode the impression it’s trying to build of itself as a strong and feared country. Still, Iranian media and some officials have called for restraint, arguing that the bombing of the consulate might be a trap meant to stir up anger within Iran and threaten its internal stability. The Iranian press is preparing citizens to accept that retaliatory military strikes are futile.

Despite Tehran’s repeated threats of revenge, its long-term strategy is based on preserving its achievements over the past decades and avoiding any knee-jerk reactions. It aspires to reach a deal with the United States in which the latter acknowledges it as a leading regional power. This objective lies at the center of its dispute not only with the United States but also with Israel, which refuses to recognize Iran as a country with equal regional influence.

Pro-Iranian analysts have sought to justify the delay in responding to the Israeli strike by arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not be able to remain in power under the pretext that his country is at war. They believe Iran must maintain its patience to defeat its enemies’ plans. Iranian leaders will thus adopt a strategic patience policy in dealing with this incident as they have done on many occasions since the Iranian Revolution. They will refrain from escalating regional tensions that might lead to direct conflict with Israel or the United States. However, they face the challenge of continuing Iran’s regional meddling, especially with the increasing strategic costs and risks.

Avoidance of War

For 30 years, Iran has tried to create a deterrent aura around itself. Missile parades, drills and animated videos are meant to publicly display Iran’s strength and permanent combat readiness, but the reality on the ground is entirely different. Avoidance of confrontation and eschewal of confidence-building measures with Israel are constants in Iranian foreign policy.

Given the norms that govern relations between countries, Iran must respond to the Israeli strike, but it is careful to avoid inviting Israel’s military wrath. Tehran even informed its Shiite proxies, just as it did with Hamas, that it would not participate directly in the fighting against Israel. It will arm and finance them but not to the extent of triggering a regional war requiring Iran’s involvement.

For Israel, Iran’s subversive agenda is too apparent to hide, let alone tolerate. The building that Israel bombed in Damascus was not a consulate in the internationally recognized sense but rather a center for military planning. Why, after all, would senior IRGC officers be working out of a diplomatic facility? Iran often uses its diplomatic missions to spread its influence worldwide, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, it used its cultural centers to spread the Shiite doctrine, which led to the closure of some of them in several countries. But Israel’s destruction of the Iranian consulate in Damascus is a pivotal event because it puts Tehran in a difficult position, indicating that the rules of engagement between the two countries have changed in Israel’s favor.

Deep in their collective consciousness, Iranians believe that no one can defeat them. The reason has nothing to do with military balance. The Iranian people are patient and persevering. However, the past two centuries did not go well for Iranians as they suffered frequent defeats by Russia and Britain. Modern warfare is about technological innovation, not just patience. The Israelis highlighted their technological superiority at the beginning of the recent confrontations, which differ radically from previous Arab-Israeli wars. Israeli operations have depended more on high-tech equipment and weapons than on conventional warfare. Intensive shelling and bombardments of border villages have given way to targeted attacks.

The Israelis say they can target warehouses, drone operating rooms and missile launching pads with absolute ease. Nasrallah even had to ask his fighters to refrain from using cell phones and to block and turn off surveillance cameras from the internet. However, these actions didn’t stop Israeli drones from successfully targeting Hezbollah commanders. It’s no wonder that Iran is adhering to a policy of strategic patience.

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