Fraught US-Iran relations could tip over into war
America Letter: While Trump wants to avoid Middle-East conflict, volatile factors simmer
US president Donald Trump with White House national security adviser John Bolton: Taking on Iran presents a different challenge than Iraq given Tehran’s formidable military capacity. Photograph: Carlos Barria
Relations between the two long-time adversaries have been on the decline since the US exited the Iran nuclear deal last year.
Dubbed the “worst deal ever” by Donald Trump during his election campaign, Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, negotiated with other European countries in 2015, eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country curbing its nuclear activity.
Trump pulled out of the agreement a year ago, and the result has been predictable. The value of the rial has plummeted, much-feted contracts with foreign businesses have been broken and the economy has contracted.
But the breakdown in relations, even as the EU has desperately tried to keep the deal alive and circumvent US restrictions on trade, has taken a more worrisome turn.
Earlier this month, national security adviser John Bolton announced the US was dispatching an aircraft carrier and B52 bombers to the Persian gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of Iranian aggression.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo skipped a scheduled visit to Berlin to make a surprise visit to Iraq. This week he dropped in to a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels to lay out the US position on Iran.
On Sunday, tensions in the Gulf escalated after four vessels – two of them Saudi-owned – were attacked in the region. Two days later, two oil stations in Saudi Arabia were hit by drone attacks, with Yemeni Houthi rebels aligned with Iran claiming responsibility. Soon “non-emergency” staff at US embassies and consulates in Iraq were ordered by the state department to leave.
The rapid ramping-up of activity bears the trappings of war. Bolton in particular has warned that the US is “fully prepared” to respond to any attack by Iranian proxies or Iranian forces as he announced the military deployment. Though he stressed that the US did not want war, such a direct warning to Iran is unusual. Bolton, an Iran hawk who backed the war in Iraq during the Bush administration, has in recent years recommended bombing Iran and advocated regime change.
In particular, focus in Washington has turned to the underlying intelligence being used to justify increased US activity. Senior British commander Maj Gen Christopher Ghika said this week there was “no increased threat” from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.
The Pentagon shot down his comments. But the ministry of defence in London backed up Ghika – a rare public clash between the two allies – though foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt later said that the UK shared the US assessment.
According to reports, some of the intelligence being cited by the US side includes photographs of Iranians moving missiles on to small vessels, as well as alleged threats against commercial vessels in the region.
Pretext for invasion
The now very public debate over the credibility and threat level of Iran’s activity has brought back uncomfortable memories of the Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein’s alleged store of weapons of mass destruction was used as a pretext for invasion – a justification later shown to be erroneous.
In addition to the US's European allies – EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for “maximum restraint” following her meeting with Pompeo on Monday – Democrats have sounded the alarm. Senior intelligence officials briefed congressional leaders on Thursday on Capitol Hill, and even Republicans such as Senator Mitt Romney of Utah expressed caution.
Ultimately the issue will come down to Trump, who is said to be uneasy with the hawkish stance of some of his advisers. Having campaigned in part on a promise to reduce the US’s military presence in the Middle East, he is wary of embarking on a new military conflict.
Realpolitik will also come into play. Taking on Iran presents a much different challenge than Iraq given Tehran’s formidable military capacity. Trump may prefer to goad Iran into negotiating a reopening the 2015 nuclear deal while also addressing Iran’s support for dangerous militia in the region.
But quite apart from the difficulties in getting Tehran back to the table as support for the 2015 deal fades among the jaded Iranian public and already-sceptical hardliners, the danger for the United States is that a conflict could very easily be ignited.
Trump may not want war. But provoking Iran – and perhaps more importantly its Shia allies in volatile regions in the Middle East – is a dangerous game and one that could easily tip over into conflict.