US ratchets up ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran with military deployment

According to experts, Tehran could seek “asymmetrical options” by relying on armed proxies in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Military escalation. A file photo of a B-52 Bomber of the type that the US Air Force is deploying to the Gulf. 	(AFP)
Military escalation. A file photo of a B-52 Bomber of the type that the US Air Force is deploying to the Gulf. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - While Iran threatened to leave the international nuclear deal and send illegal drugs and refugees to the West to prod European countries into standing up to the United States, Washington is showing it is ready to embark on a “path to war” against Tehran, analysts said.

US officials warned of Iranian plans to attack US interests or allies in the Gulf region. Washington said tens of thousands of US troops deployed in the region were being reinforced by the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, other ships in the carrier’s strike group and a bomber wing.

The Pentagon announced May 10 that the USS Arlington, an amphibious assault ship, and a Patriot air defence system battery would also be deployed in the Gulf.

In the lopsided face-off with the United States, Iran “possesses various asymmetrical options,” Roland Popp, a security analyst focusing on Middle Eastern affairs, said via e-mail. “US troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan could well be targets for retaliation in case of an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Tehran could seek help from its armed proxies in those countries.

In a sign of mounting risks, US Navy Vice-Admiral James Malloy, commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, did not exclude sending the carrier strike group into the Strait of Hormuz. “If I need to bring it inside the strait, I will do so,” he said.

Exactly a year after Washington pulled out of the Iranian nuclear agreement, on May 8 Iranian President Hassan Rohani announced measures tailored to avoid an automatic return of international sanctions.

However, he threatened that in 60 days Iran could resume enrichment of uranium beyond the level permitted under the 2015 deal, unless the five other signatories to the agreement — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — protect Iran’s oil and banking industries from US sanctions.

Rohani also threatened European countries with unhindered flow of refugees from the region and illegal drugs from Iran’s eastern neighbour Afghanistan. “You have responsibilities, too… for keeping your youth away from drugs, the flood of immigrants and other cooperation Iran has had with you so far. If this trend continues, the cooperation will cease,” he said.

Just hours after Rohani spoke, the US administration, in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, announced a ban on Tehran’s exports of industrial metals. “Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” US President Donald Trump said.

However, he also hinted at a softer approach, saying he was looking “forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”

Rohani’s statement meant that Iran had taken “minimum retaliatory measures against US maximum pressure,” Ali Vaez, director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project, wrote on Twitter. Tehran was conducting a “slow-motion escalation” in an effort to buy time, resulting in a “gradual erosion” of the nuclear deal.

The remaining partners of Iran under the agreement want to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is formally known, in place despite the US withdrawal. However, they have not found a way to shield trade with Iran from US sanctions.

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and France, Germany and Britain said: “We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”

Iran’s leaders are hoping for an end of Trump’s presidency in US elections next year. “Their main hope right now is to sit out the Trump phenomenon and to hope for a Democratic president to take over in January 2021 who would return the US into compliance with the JCPOA,” Popp said.

Trump argues that the deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, is flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile programme and does not punish Iran for meddling in the affairs of other countries.

Critics of the president say Trump is leading the United States into a dangerous situation. US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said on Twitter: “Trump’s Iran strategy is blind escalation. There is no endgame. No overriding strategy.”

Others in Congress said the pressure campaign was working.

“The (Iranian) regime is now faced with a sharp choice between its current malign activity and behaving as a responsible member of the international community,” Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said in a statement.

Suzanne Maloney, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said US officials believe that Iran “doesn’t bend under a small amount of pressure” but could change if faced with severe threats.

“Altogether, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the US is on a path to war with Iran,” said Popp.