Anything is possible as US flexes muscles against Iran

Although Iran’s regular military and IRGC are no match for the US Navy and Air Force, which can easily outgun them, there is the risk of miscalculation that could lead to hostilities.
Sunday 19/05/2019
The USS Abraham Lincoln sails south in the Suez Canal near Ismailia, Egypt, May 9. (AP)
The USS Abraham Lincoln sails south in the Suez Canal near Ismailia, Egypt, May 9. (AP)

Tensions between Washington and Tehran heightened as the Trump administration cited new Iranian threats to US military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

An unidentified US Defence Department official, speaking to the Washington Post, said the threats include “credible” information involving Iranian military and proxy forces. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quoted as saying he had a “responsibility” to keep US diplomats safe, including those “In Erbil and Baghdad… [and] all around the Middle East.”

On May 15, Pompeo ordered the withdrawal of non-essential diplomatic personnel from Iraq.

Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad on May 7 to apprise Iraqi officials of the threats. CNN reported that these include Iran’s transporting of short- and medium-range missiles aboard boats in the Gulf. A week later, Iraqi officials warned pro-Iranian militias not to take any action that could provoke the United States.

Iran has also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which close to 30% of worldwide oil passes, in reaction to US efforts to squeeze the Iranian economy by threatening to impose sanctions on countries purchasing Iranian oil.

This is not the first time, of course, that Iran threatened to close the strait but the combination of threats against US military personnel and diplomats in Iraq plus the new threat to close the vital waterway prompted the Trump administration to flex its military muscles. Reports of damage to four oil tankers in the Gulf, described as acts of sabotage by the United Arab Emirates, added to the concerns.

Washington ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier that had been in the Mediterranean, to the Gulf, to be supplemented by the deployment of US Air Force bombers to the region. The New York Times reported that US national security adviser John Bolton ordered the Pentagon to prepare to send 120,000 military personnel to the region should Iran attack US personnel or escalate its nuclear activities.

This show and the threat of force raised concerns that the United States and Iran were headed for military clashes. There has long been a sort of cat-and-mouse game in the Gulf between US and Iranian military vessels, usually small Iranian craft of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) harassing US Navy ships, which sometimes fire warning shots to keep them away. However, analysts fear that this time the threat of military engagement may be real.

The Trump administration has insisted that it is not seeking a war with Iran. Indeed, US President Donald Trump indicated that he wants to negotiate with Iranian leaders and reporting by the Washington Post suggested Trump is not inclined to respond militarily unless there is a “big move” from the Iranians.

Many political commentators and politicians in the United States said Trump is being influenced Bolton, who has long advocated for regime change in Iran. Liberal commentators, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, warned that Bolton may be encouraging Trump, who he said displayed a healthy opposition to wars in the Middle East while campaigning in 2016, to get into a military confrontation with Iran.

On the conservative side, an article published in the Hill, a Washington publication, May 6 by Behnam Ben Taleblu and Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the increased US military posture in the Gulf would “make Tehran think twice about escalation.” The authors noted that “when confronted with strength, Iran has often backed down.”

Although Iran’s regular military and IRGC are no match for the US Navy and Air Force, which can easily outgun them, there is the risk of miscalculation that could lead to hostilities. After Pompeo’s meeting with European diplomats May 13 in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt echoed this worry by saying he was concerned about the “risk of a conflict happening by accident.”

And, like Bolton on the US side, there are hardliners in the Iranian regime who may be itching for a fight. They were never in favour of the Iran nuclear deal and were wary of the rapprochement between Iran and the United States that was supposed to follow. The fact that large economic benefits did not accrue to Iran after the nuclear agreement and that Trump pulled out of the deal even when Iran was abiding by its terms has given the hardliners a boost.

Feeling this pressure, on May 8, Iranian President Hassan Rohani announced that Iran was partially withdrawing from the nuclear deal because of the policies of the United States. Rohani is trying to steer a middle course between appeasing Iranian hardliners on the one hand and not cutting off a lifeline to European partners of the nuclear deal on the other with the partial withdrawal announcement.

However, the IRGC and its allies in the Iranian government could embark on a very risky strategy, believing they could survive a policy of asymmetrical warfare that would involve striking US targets in Iraq and elsewhere.

Prudence suggests otherwise but with military elements of Iran and the United States in such proximity to one another, not only in the Gulf waters but on land, as in the case of Iraq, anything is possible.