Iran threatens war with ‘all its means,’ US stresses ‘deterrence’
ISTANBUL - Iran seems to be getting ready for a military conflict that could involve attacks by its proxies against the United States and Washington’s allies in the Middle East.
Tehran raised the stakes in its dispute with Washington by declaring it had quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity, a move that could soon send the country’s stockpile of enriched uranium beyond limits set by the 2015 nuclear accord.
Relations between Washington and Tehran went into crisis a year ago when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and imposed tough sanctions.
Both the United States and Iran accuse each other of aggressive behaviour that destabilises the Middle East. Tough rhetoric and a military build-up raised concerns over the possibility of another war in the region. Iranian President Hassan Rohani rejected the idea of talks with the United States and called for his government to be given more power to run the sanctions-hit economy in an “economic war.”
Following a missile attack on the heavily secured Green Zone in Baghdad, site of the US Embassy, Trump said on Twitter that “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”
The US president has sent an additional aircraft carrier group and bombers to the Gulf amid concerns by his officials over possible Iranian plans to attack US assets or allies in the region.
Following a briefing for lawmakers May 21 in Washington, the Trump administration played down the idea of an impending war with Iran. US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said: “We’re not about going to war.” He added the administration’s goal “is to prevent Iranian miscalculation.”
“We do not want the situation to escalate,” Shanahan said. “This is about deterrence, not about war.”
US President Donald Trump announced the deployment of 1,500 troops to the Middle East. “We want to have protection in the Middle East. We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective,” he said May 24.
US Navy Vice-Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of direct responsibility for the May 12 attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates coast.
“The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC,” Gilday said.
Gilday also blamed the May 19 rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green zone on Iran-backed “proxy” factions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Java Zarif, speaking May 25, said: “Increased US presence in our region is very dangerous and a threat to international peace and security and must be confronted.”
Far outstripped by the US military in terms of hardware, air power and technology, Iran would probably rely on instruments of “asymmetric” warfare to attack its adversaries, analysts said. The term describes unconventional means, such as ambushes, terror attacks and disruption of electronic systems. The threat by Iran’s leaders to close the Strait of Hormuz to stop oil exports from the Gulf by tanker falls into that category.
There are signs that Iran has started to implement an “asymmetric” strategy.
Analysts said sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf near the United Arab Emirates and drone attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on sites in Saudi Arabia were signals from Iran that it would spread a possible war with the United States, throughout the region.
Saudi-owned media accused the Houthis of targeting Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, after Saudi Arabia and its allies said they had intercepted two missiles over the kingdom. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits May 30 in Mecca to discuss implications of the attacks.
Given the military superiority of the United States against Iran, hardliners in Washington are certain that a war would be over fast and end with a resounding Iranian defeat.
“Well, if Iran struck out militarily against the United States or against our allies in the region, then I would certainly expect a devastating response against Iran,” US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, said in an interview with US broadcaster PBS. “Two strikes: the first strike and the last strike.”
Not everyone is so sure. Iran, a country of 81 million people with about 500,000 men under arms, owns thousands of “short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles capable of striking targets as far as Israel and south-east Europe,” the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington said in a report this year. It was “the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East.”
Mohammad Saleh Jokar, a deputy IRGC commander, said recently that “even our short-range missiles can easily reach (US) warships in the [Arabian] Gulf.” The US news magazine Newsweek reported that a wargame by the US military in 2002, which simulated a conflict in the Gulf, saw the side using Iranian tactics launch massive cruise missile attacks that would have destroyed many US warships had the attack been real.
In addition to conventional weapons, Iran could be expected to employ other means in a war with the United States, said Maysam Behravesh, an Iran expert at Lund University in Sweden. One option would be to employ partner and proxy forces, such as the Houthis, pro-Iran militias in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon to inflict damage on the United States and allied assets throughout the region.
“It will undoubtedly be costly for both sides, including the US and perhaps more so for its allies in Iran’s backyard that will fall prey to the fight,” Behravesh said via e-mail. “Iranian military does not have superior firepower and lags far behind in aerial capabilities, so it will most probably utilise all within its means to maximise the costs of conflict for the invading party.”
This would “include not only targeting US military bases and assets in the region but also engaging Saudi and Emirati critical spots, directly and through its proxies if retaliating against US forces proves difficult,” he wrote. “This is the kind of tactic Iran used at some points during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980s.”
Other analysts warned of electronic warfare by Iran. Keith Alexander, a retired US Army general, and Jamil N. Jaffer, of cybersecurity company IronNet, said the United States should be aware of “the threat that Iran’s growing cyber capabilities pose to the United States and our allies in the region.”
In an analysis for the Hill, a Washington publication, Alexander and Jaffer said: “Iran almost certainly will wage a low-level war against us and our allies again in cyberspace and soon.”
Two years ago, Iran was accused of having been the origin of a malware attack against computer systems at Saudi state oil company Aramco.