Cool heads must prevail in Washington to avert war with Iran
22 May 2019|

The dramatic escalation of tensions between the US and Iran over the past few weeks has significantly changed the dynamic of Washington’s approach to Tehran, increasing the likelihood of military confrontation between the two countries.

Until recently, US President Donald Trump appeared content to use a combination of sanctions and rhetoric to pressure Tehran over the nuclear deal and Iran’s role in conflicts across the Middle East, a strategy that arguably also focused on regime change in Tehran.

But Washington’s posture changed in early May, when National Security Advisor John Bolton issued a statement saying that the US was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber taskforce to the Persian Gulf in response to ‘a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings’. The move was intended to send a message to Iran that ‘any attack on US interests or on those of its allies would be met with unrelenting force’.

Washington has been vague on what exactly these ‘indications and warnings’ were. Following Bolton’s statement, US military officials noted that ‘military analysts were not tracking any new, imminent or clearly defined Iranian or Iranian-backed threats against Americans in Iraq or the region’. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the deployment was ‘something [Washington has] been working on for a little while’, suggesting that it was more about the US moving decisively to the next phase of its Iran strategy than about responding to new threat intelligence.

In mid-May, Pompeo also briefed his European counterparts on Iran and outlined the ‘multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran’. But Pompeo’s European interlocutors appeared far from overwhelmed by Pompeo’s case on Iran. One unnamed European diplomat was quoted as saying that the meeting was ‘both useful and frustrating since we compared notes and information but failed to identify the rationale and the objectives of the maximal pressure’ being applied by Washington.

And yesterday the White House briefed US House and Senate members on the Iran situation but failed to convince them about the threat from Iran. Democrats said there was no new information that the threat from Iran had increased and accused the White House of being eager to attack Iran at the slightest provocation.

Nevertheless, the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers over the weekend of 11 May led to a further heightening of tensions in the Gulf, despite there being no clear attribution to Iran. Likewise, Iran’s deployment of rockets onto military speedboats on 16 May made the situation in the Gulf more volatile. The war of words between Washington and Tehran escalated into outright threats of military action.

The White House appears hell-bent on aggravating an already febrile situation by seizing on incidents to build its narrative on the security threat posed by Iran. For example, Trump responded to a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday by tweeting, ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again’, despite no clear publicly available evidence that Iran or an Iranian proxy was behind the attack. Washington has also been accused of inflating the threat that Iran’s speedboat deployment posed to commercial and military shipping.

In light of these points, the White House’s insistence that it does not want to go with war with Iran sits at odds with the reality of its recent actions in the Middle East. Also worrying is the absence of any current diplomatic channels for dialogue between Tehran and Washington that could be leveraged to defuse rising tensions. Trump’s approach to Iran has been characterised as ‘all coercion and no diplomacy’, indicating that he isn’t actually interested in negotiating a better nuclear agreement with Iran but is seeking the ‘capitulation or implosion of the Iranian regime’.

Given Washington’s unambiguous declaration that Iran will be held to account for any attack by it or its proxies, the US has also effectively provided the context in which a third actor—such as Islamic State—could precipitate direct conflict between the two countries. IS still poses a potent security threat across the region and would be a primary beneficiary of any military conflict between the US and Iran. It’s plausible that IS could conduct a ‘false flag’ operation against US forces, or even Gulf shipping routes, in order to provoke US retaliation against Iran.

Washington has, through its escalating application of punitive sanctions, increasingly belligerent rhetoric and recent deployment of additional offensive capabilities to the Persian Gulf, effectively backed Tehran into a corner. The White House may not have clearly elucidated its end game, but it does appear determined to use all available levers to provoke a reaction from Tehran.

Bolton, who appears to be setting Washington’s current posture towards Tehran, has previously disparaged the value of diplomacy in resolving the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and professed a clear preference for resolving the Iran nuclear question through the use of military force to effect regime change in Tehran. He is also on the record defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq by claiming that ‘our concern was not the imminence of Saddam’s threat, but the very existence of his regime’.

That admission has contemporary significance, given the obvious parallels between Washington’s circa-2003 policy towards Iraq and the current situation with Iran. Regime change in Tehran is becoming increasingly evident as Washington’s key objective. But it is at this point that comparisons between Iraq and Iran end.

The US would likely find war with Iran significantly more difficult to prosecute than its invasion of Iraq and impossible to restrict to Iranian territory. Iran possesses the most potent conventional missile arsenal in the Middle East and is also able to mobilise proxy forces across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Other countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria and NATO member Turkey, might also be drawn into the conflict, leading to a conflagration that would engulf the Middle East.