In a new sign of growing tensions between Iran and the United States, it was reported May 23 that the Pentagon has asked the White House to dispatch some 5000 additional troops, as well as new military equipment, to the Middle East. The logic behind the request, according to the Pentagon, is to enhance US defense capabilities in face of the so-called “Iranian threat.”
The move comes amid a heightening war of words between Tehran and Washington and following a series of negative incidents in the region, from a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone to sabotage acts against several oil tankers off the port of Fujairah in the UAE. The sequence of developments has sparked speculations that a military confrontation between Iran and the US could be on the horizon.
For now, high-ranking American officials repeatedly say that the US is not going to initiate a war with Iran, while emphasizing that a military option is on the table in case Iran targets the interests of Washington and its regional allies. In fact, an additional 5000 US troops cannot be regarded as a sign of war preparation, as, according to a recent report published in the Washington Post, the US would need “more than 1.6 million troops” to initiate an effective military campaign against Iran – which is obviously well above the current US military capacity.
Although the mentioned number may not be enough for an all-out war with Iran, it’s certainly enough to further escalate the situation in the region, provoking Iran into strengthening its defense capabilities to face any potential American act of aggression. This is, in fact, a clear example of a “Security Dilemma,” in which any military move by one side is seen as a provocative sign by the other, creating a chain of escalatory moves. In such a situation, any misunderstanding or miscalculation would lead to a military conflict.
As such, although both Tehran and Washington reiterate that they are not looking for war, the overall situation is quite fragile and the risk of a conflict – though a limited one – is something real.
However, there are some other factors at play which could make the US think twice before starting a military operation against Iran. On the one hand, in case of a military face-off with Tehran, Washington cannot fully count on the support of its NATO allies, especially Turkey, as the sole member of the alliance in the Middle East. Not only a growing rift between the US and Turkey over an array of issues would make Ankara reluctant to be a part of an American-led operation anywhere in the world, but, more importantly, Iran and Turkey has been enjoying close neighborly relations and Ankara fears that any instability in Iran could spill-over into its own territory.
On the other hand, given the vast nature of the Iranian-allied political and military network in the region, even the non-NATO regional allies of the US are apparently afraid of repercussions of an Iran-US war for their own security. In other words, there’s a general understanding that Iran’s response to an American attack would not remain limited to Iran’s immediate borders and would entail targeting the American interests all around the region. This could explain why even Israel, as Iran’s regional arch-enemy, has decided to take a low profile regarding the current Iranian-American tensions. The same concern is thought to be the case for other American allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Being aware of the above-mentioned fact, the Islamic Republic has started to take some confidence-building steps regarding its Arab neighbors to give them serious security guarantees in exchange for a promise that their soil won’t be used for any aggressive move against Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s proposal during his recent visit to Baghdad for signing a “non-aggression pact” with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf was the official representation of this idea. Apart from guaranteeing mutual security of Iran and its neighbors, the proposed pact could disarm the US from one of its main excuses for increasing pressures on Iran, i.e. containing the “Iranian threat” against its neighbors.
In a positive reaction to Iran’s new proposal, Russia has welcomed the idea of signing a regional non-aggression pact. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “Agreeing not to attack one another is the first step toward reducing tensions.” In fact, as a close partner of Iran and the other Persian Gulf states, Moscow can play an active role in realizing the idea and initiating a compromise between the sides. Not only this would be a positive step toward stabilizing the situation in the Middle East, but could also enhance Russia’s status in the Middle East as an honest broker and an effective trans-regional actor.