Washington tamps down Iran showdown but flashpoints still likely

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected a proposal from Democrats that would have required congressional approval before the Trump administration could act against Iran.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Senator Lindsey Graham speaks to reporters after a classified members-only briefing on Iran on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 21. (AP)
Aware of threats. Senator Lindsey Graham speaks to reporters after a classified members-only briefing on Iran on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 21. (AP)

WASHINGTON - After a month of escalation in the US pressure campaign against Iran, officials in Washington sought to tamp down language suggesting the Trump administration sought war, even there were report of more US troops headed to the region.

“I don’t think the crisis is over,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the RAND Corporation. “The escalation was quite severe in the last few weeks with the ramp-up of military forces in the region.”

Even as both sides increase military preparedness and the US Congress argues about whether the threat is real and what the potential response should be, Kaye said she does not think “a full-out war between Iran and the US is going to break out anytime soon.”

Two days after US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan met with congressional leaders May 21 to dissipate fears of war, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon presented plans to the White House to send 10,000 troops to the Middle East.

US President Donald Trump announced the deployment of 1,500 troops. “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.

The announcement was made the same day US Navy Vice-Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of direct involvement in the May 12 attacks on tankers off the United Arab Emirates.

“The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC,” Gilday said. He accused Iran-backed “proxy” forces of the May 19 rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“We’re not going to war,” Shanahan said after briefing Congress. Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation. We do not want the situation to escalate: This is about deterrence, not about war.”

The Associated Press reported that US Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona who served in the Iraq War, left the hearing worried that administration officials would use the war authorisation for fighting al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks to take military action against Iran.

“What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran,” he said.

Other officials said they received little information in the hearings about a plan moving forward.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected a proposal from Democrats that would have required congressional approval before the Trump administration could act against Iran.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who represents South Carolina, posted on Twitter: “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”

Gallego, also on Twitter, said he had seen the same information as Graham and came to a different conclusion.

The tensions started with the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Kaye said, adding that naming the IRGC a terrorist organisation pushed Iran into a corner.

The friction escalated after US President Donald Trump seemingly warned of an attack. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” Trump wrote on Twitter on May 19. “Never threaten the United States Again!”

The next day, he sought to make clear that the United States had not reached out to Iran.

“The Fake News put out a typically false statement, without any knowledge that the United States was trying to set up a negotiation with Iran,” he tweeted. “This is a false report. Iran will call us if and when they are ever ready. In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse. Very sad for the Iranian people!”

That evening, Trump said talks had not been set up with Iran and that he’d like to hear from the Iranians “if they’re ready.”

This comes as a poll indicated half of Americans asked said the United States will go to war with Iran within the next few years, Reuters/Ipsos said. The poll stated that 49% of respondents said they disapprove of how Trump is handling relations with Iran and 39% said they approve of his policy. About 60% of those asked said the United States should not carry out a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian military.

US officials have said Iran was responsible for attacks on oil pipelines and oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf. A missile landed in Iraq’s Green Zone several kilometres from the US Embassy. Officials said it was fired from an area known to have Iran-supported sectarian violence.

“Even though both sides say they don’t want war, I still see potential flashpoints ahead,” Kaye said.

She said, what one side sees as defensive measures, the other sees as offensive and aggressive action.

Also, there are “serious deadlines” ahead, with Iran issuing a 60-day warning to Europe to help Iran avoid sanctions or it will also pull out of the nuclear deal while the Trump administration move towards “zero” exemptions for countries buying oil from Iran.

“Iran will continue to want to [send a] message to the US that there are costs for these actions,” Kaye said.

She said she worries that European countries won’t be able to salvage the nuclear agreement, which she said is a way to avoid war. Iran can achieve higher levels of uranium production within months, Kaye said.

IRNA, Iran’s state-run news agency, citing Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said the country quadrupled its uranium-production ability in response to pressure from Washington but that it would only be enriched to the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.

“They have not violated the agreement yet and I think that’s good news but I’m quite pessimistic about where things are going,” Kaye said.

Ultimately, she said she’s sceptical about sanctions helping the United States talk with Iran.

“I don’t think the Iranians are going to have a lot of incentive to go back to the negotiating table,” she said, explaining that the United States pulled out of the agreement, making the Trump administration an unreliable partner.

However, Iran must be questioning the true goal: Does the Trump administration want a better deal or do they want regime change?

“If there’s ambiguity, that hurts,” Kaye said. “President Trump has sent these mixed signals.”

The Iranians may need to see concessions before they go to the negotiating table, she added. Those could be in the form of continued waivers for the oil sanctions, particularly for India and Turkey.

“I’m sceptical that this administration will be providing relief,” she said.

Kaye said she doesn’t envision Iran participating in unilateral negotiations, saying officials prefer international negotiations.

“If we’re going to get something moving again, the Iraqis or Kuwaitis could provide some cover for us,” she said. “There’s a possibility that some communications channels could be reopened.”

That said, Kaye said she doesn’t believe there will be a “full-out war,” even if there is a miscalculation or intended attack by either side.

“My prediction would be like what you’re seeing in Israeli strikes in Syria,” she said. “The messaging there is very specific: We’re not trying to get rid of [President Bashar Assad].”

The United States could retaliate against specific groups but probably not in Iran, Kaye said.