Iranian officials took their belligerent rhetoric up another notch on Friday, as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) told U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates they will face a “storm” of retaliation if they do not heed the IRGC’s warnings, while a senior cleric directly threatened U.S. military bases in the region.
“If you cross our red lines, we will surely cross yours. You know the storm the Iranian nation can create,” Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami of the IRGC said at a Friday prayer session in Tehran, addressing his public warning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Stop creating plots and tensions. You are not invincible. You are sitting in a glass house and cannot tolerate the revenge of the Iranian nation,” Salami warned.
He also threatened the United States by saying it must “stop supporting terrorists” or it will “pay the price.”
Ayatollah Mohammadali Movahedi Kermani, leader of the Friday prayers in Iran, echoed Salami’s threats. “If America does anything wrong, their bases around Iran would not remain secure,” he said.
The proximate cause of this belligerent rhetoric is the attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz last weekend, in which a squad of gunmen killed at least 29 people and injured dozens more. Iran has accused the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of complicity in the attack.
The question of who really was behind the Ahvaz attack remains open. Iran claims to have made 22 arrests so far, confiscating “weapons, explosive material, and communications equipment,” according to state media. The Islamic State and ethnic separatist groups active in the Ahvaz region have claimed responsibility. Iranian officials apparently see the gunmen themselves as Ahvazi separatists but claim the attack was either planned or assisted by Iran’s foreign adversaries.
NBC News on Tuesday hypothesized that internal opponents of the regime in Tehran are seizing upon the opportunity provided by public disgust with their government and instability caused by the intensifying pressure of U.S. sanctions.
Conversely, Foreign Policy noted on Wednesday the regime is using the Ahvaz terrorist attack to rally popular support and inspire Iranian patriotism, cleverly playing off the deep anti-Arab sentiments of the Iranian people. The crowds that were chanting for death to the ayatollahs over the past few months are back to chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel!”
As one Iranian who has been disgruntled with his government until now put it, “With Saturday’s attack it’s not just about the economy anymore for me. It’s now about safeguarding the country.”
There is cause for concern that Iran might ratchet up its rhetoric against the U.S., Israel, and Gulf states past the point of no return. At some point, if the regime keeps rallying the public by accusing the United States of perpetrating the horrific Ahvaz attack, the public will expect them to do something about it. If they do not, the Iranian man on the street might begin remembering why he thought his government was corrupt and ineffectual. Also, the IRGC is infamously loyal to the ayatollahs, difficult for the secular government to control, and prone to taking provocative action on its own.
After the first round of Iranian threats to retaliate against the U.S. and its allies for the Ahvaz attack, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis expressed his hopes for calm and reason in Tehran in a very Mattis way.
“We’ve been very clear that they shouldn’t take us on like that. And I am hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail,” he said on Monday. “They’ve so far blamed at least three countries and I think one terrorist group. We’ll see how long the list goes. But it’d be good if they knew what they’re talking about before they started talking.”