The US administration is sending mixed messages to friends and foes in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran. In early May, Washington decided to send a naval strike group to the region. This was followed by hawkish talk by the US National Security Adviser John Bolton who had consistently advocated a policy of regime change in Iran. President Donald Trump, however, later undercut him by making clear that he was not seeking regime change in Iran. President Trump also reiterated that he is ready to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran. There is no indication that these contradictory messages make any strong impact on Iran.
Given Bolton’s earlier declaration that “any attack on the United States’ interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” his recent accusation of Iran of orchestrating sabotage attacks on Saudi tankers can escalate the tension to a new level.
The recent intensification of friction in the Gulf shouldn’t come as no surprise, considering that Mr Trump made President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal one of the main foreign policy focuses during his campaign trail. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo later outlined Washington’s strategy to confront Iran in detail late last year in a Foreign Affairs article.
The US has valid reasons to be concerned about the shift in the Middle East power balance in favour of Iran. The rise of Iran is one of the drivers of the current trend of escalation of political tension across the region. It is important to reiterate, though, that this shift came as a result of combination of US disengagement from the region, the removal of Arab autocrats, and the Arab Spring that changed domestic and regional political conﬁgurations.
The US can try stop this shift either by reversing the post-American vacuum in the Middle East or through external military-economic pressure. Judging by the other recent actions by the US administration, such as the decision to fully withdraw the US troops or significantly reduce their numbers in Syria, it is difficult to see a clear commitment to re-engagement in the region, even in the form of supporting US allies and pro-US groups. Given President Trump’s ever declining enthusiasm to get the US more involved in the Middle East, Washington can choose limited ways of military engagement with Iran. It is early to judge how successful President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’ will be in reversing the pro-Iran shift in power balance. For such a pressure to work, though, it is obligatory for the US to work with its allies in the region.
In his Cairo speech in January, Secretary Pompeo expressed clearly that the preferred partners for the US in the Middle East will be states and not non-state actors, such as Kurds or other large ethnic groups in Iran. The states that are aligned with the US in the Middle East include Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Bahrain and Turkey. Among those allies, the strongest military belongs to Turkey. However, Ankara showed no indication of a willingness to join any anti-Iran campaign. Saudi Arabia, which is very vocal in its support for military confrontation against Iran, doesn’t command a military that has demonstrated strong capability in any war yet. This is despite the expensive military equipment bought by Riyadh. During the earlier years of the Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia intensively supported anti-Assad rebels with funds but didn’t commit any of its military personnel on the ground. Israel on the other hand is uncharacteristically silent about the recent tension between the US and Iran. Some Israeli military analysts believe that the Israeli government might be reluctant to be at the frontline of a military confrontation with Iran. These US allies, on the other hand, is bitterly divided in rival blocs led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The Iraqi government, which tries to balance the US and Iranian influence on them, is one of the most vulnerable countries that worry about being caught in the crossfire of a potential US-Iran conflict. The European Union, which tried unsuccessfully to save the nuclear deal, will unlikely to join a military campaign against Iran.
On the other hand, Iran can count on an array of non-state actors in the region, from Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, to pro-Iranian militia in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi’s in Yemen. Iran buys allies not just with money but also with its political ideology. Although some of these forces won’t fight Iran’s battle, they can still be useful in keeping in check the US allies in the event of a conflict. In terms of a threat, Iran both represents a state sponsor of militant groups and a cause. This makes Iranian threat very different from the threat emanating from North Korea.
In the absence of a realisable local military and political partnership that could operate under a collective security architecture, the US might seek to target Iran’s military infrastructure directly, rather than targeting the tentacles of the octopus, i.e. Iran’s proxies and allies across the region. Iran, in contrast, may try to keep war as far away from Iran’s borders as possible.
At present, the main driver of the US strategy to confront and contain Iran is economic and not military. The US sanctions on Iran is working in the sense that it isolates Iran from the world economy, however, it is less clear whether it is putting enough pressure on the regime apparatus.
With the US aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers near Iranian waters, a miscalculation on either side could also lead to an unintentional war. A defence adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, recently claimed that “Washington’s unwillingness to attack Iran results from inability.” There are strong indications that this may not just be posturing for domestic consumption but a genuine miscalculation of Iran’s and the US’ relative military strengths. Qasem Soleimani, a powerful commander of Revolutionary Guards, addressing to President Trump also boasted that “If you begin the war, we will end it.” Such statements are indication of a kind of hubris that demonstrates Tehran’s capability of misjudging. If indeed, Iran was responsible for the attacks on oil tankers off the Gulf, it is not difficult to understand the military logic behind it. Tehran might both be testing and provoking the US via attacks through proxies that they can deny any links with.
Of course, neither Iran nor its proxies and allies, are any match for US military power. But unlike Iraq, Iran has been preparing for the moment that they come under the US attack for over decades. The US can defeat Iran militarily with overwhelming air power, but Tehran and its array of military and paramilitary groups can turn the conflict into a lengthy and politically costly battle.
Furthermore, Russia, which has been taking an active stance in regards to the tensions that involve the US, such as in Venezuela or in Syria, has been engaging very closely with Iran, not just at a senior political level but also in terms of military and intelligence cooperation, especially with regard to the Syrian conflict. Although Moscow might want to see Iran cut to size by the US pressure and deterrence, it could also see merits in not staying idle. Russian military and intelligence assistance to Iran, even in limited and covert forms, could enable Iran to prolong a potential conflict with the US.
In the case of US falling short of exercising military power against Iran, following a drama of threats and retractions from White House, there is also a risk for Washington, to further weaken its allies in the region against Iran and embolden Tehran’s exaggerated sense of its capabilities.