Is a new war brewing in the Middle East?
Judging by the events of the past two weeks, the United States and Iran could be on a military collision course sooner or later if cooler heads on both sides do not prevail.
Yesterday, however, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress that their goal has been to deter Iran rather than to launch a war against it.
Fullblown hostilities would serve the interests of neither country, but an accidental spark could ignite a conflagration, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested last week. “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” he said.
The climate of uncertainty is such that when U.S. President Donald Trump was asked whether war is a possibility, he replied, “I hope not.”
The United States and Iran have been greatly at odds since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But tensions have risen considerably since Washington’s withdrawal last May from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and its imposition of fresh economic sanctions on Tehran.
The current crisis is rooted in Trump’s belief that the nuclear accord, signed in Geneva by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, the United Nations, is fatally flawed and needs to be completely overhauled, preferably to his own specifications. The Israeli government holds the same position.
Under the agreement, Iran froze its nuclear program for approximately 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief. The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that Iran has complied with the accord.
In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has increased its pressure on Iran, hoping that the Iranian government will be amenable to rewriting the agreement. Washington took the following steps: It ended a waiver system that had allowed countries like China and India to purchase Iranian oil, the backbone of its economy. It imposed new sanctions on Iran’s iron, copper, steel and aluminum industries, which account for 10 percent of its exports. It labelled Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
On May 5, in a blustery show of force, the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group, a B-52 bomber task force and a Patriot missile interceptor battery to the Middle East. According to reports, the Pentagon presented a contingency plan to Trump to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region in case of Iranian aggression against American forces. Around the same time, the non-essential staff of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was evacuated.
Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, claimed that the decision to send naval and air force assets to the region was “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” He did not present evidence to substantiate his allegation, but warned Iran that any attack on American interests or its allies in the Middle East would be met with “unrelenting force.”
“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” he added, “but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces.”
By all accounts, Israel — Iran’s arch enemy — provided the United States with the intelligence that Iranian forces or its proxies were planning to strike U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria.
Trump, who is generally reluctant to commit U.S. forces to the region, dismissed reports of American military preparations as “fake news.” Yet he threatened to deploy “a hell of a lot more troops” to the Middle East if required, and warned that Iran would suffer greatly” if it attacked Americans.
Pompeo issued a warning, too. “If American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion,” he asserted.
As the crisis escalated, Trump toned down his heated rhetoric, expressing confidence in Iran’s desire to discuss its differences with the United States. “If they call we would certainly negotiate, but that’s going to be up to them,” he said. “I’d only want them to call if they’re ready. If they’re not ready, they don’t have to bother.”
But in a May 19 tweet, he reverted to form by declaring that Iran would be destroyed if it attacked U.S. regional interests. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again.”
Trump’s supporter, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, predicted that the United States could easily win a war with Iran with just two strikes: “the first strike and the last strike.”
Brian H. Hook, a senior State Department official, explained that the objectives of Washington’s economic and military pressure campaign against Iran are to end its support for terrorism, to stop its missile launches, and to keep it more than a year away from the capability of building a nuclear weapon.
Last May, in the clearest enunciation of U.S. policy toward Iran, Pompeo said that Tehran must fulfill the following conditions: provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with a full report of the military dimensions of its nuclear program, abandon such work in perpetuity, and give international inspectors access to all its nuclear sites. Iran also must stop the enrichment of uranium, the reprocessing of plutonium, and close its heavy water reactor, he said.
In addition, Iran must halt its ballistic missile program, end its support of anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, withdrew all its forces from Syria, and stop threatening neighbors such as Israel.
To no one’s surprise, Iran has ignored Washington’s demands. Nor has Iran expressed an interest in entering into negotiations with the United States. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently declared that dialogue with the U.S. government is not on the table. As he put it, “As long as the United States is what it is now … negotiating is but poison, and with this current administration that poison is twice (as lethal).”
On May 8, in response to American moves, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer comply with parts of the nuclear agreement and would withdraw entirely should its European partners fail to deliver promised economic benefits within two months.
Iran also has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s traded oil passes, if the United States prevents it from exporting its own oil.
On May 12, four Saudi oil tankers in the Persian Gulf were damaged by explosives, and two days later, drones crashed into Saudi Arabian oil facilities, shutting down a pipeline. No one claimed responsibility for these acts of sabotage, but in all likelihood, the pro-Iranian Houthis of Yemen carried out these attacks.
Like the United States, Iran has played down the possibility of war, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif having said that neither side wants one. But Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami has boasted that Iran is capable of defeating what he described as “the American-Zionist front.”
If hostilities do break out, Iran may be able to rely on a number of surrogates to do its bidding.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia armed and trained by Iran, could provoke a border clash with Israel.
In Syria, Shi’a fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, who have helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide in the civil war in his favor, could be deployed against U.S. forces in the eastern sector of the country.
And in Iraq, where 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed, Iran has close ties with several Shi’a militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces. These militias fought the Islamic State organization and could target American troops in Iraq.