WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the light of heightened tension and escalating fears of war eruption between the USA and Iran, Deputy US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday that the administration of US President Donald Trump was trying to deter Iran rather than ignite a war against the Islamic Republic, after briefing members of Congress on developments related to the case. “This is about deterrence, not war, we are not about to go to war,” he told reporters after leaving a closed-door meeting with Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo. The US defense secretary added, the United States had prevented possible Iranian attacks by deploying troops in the Middle East. “We have prevented attacks by redeploying our fleet, we have prevented potential attacks on US forces,” he told reporters in Congress. “Our biggest focus at this stage is to prevent Iranian misjudgment.” He stressed that the strengthening of the military presence in the Middle East was aimed at deterrence.
In a move that as not surprising, Washington sent huge military reinforcements to the Middle East, including the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and five other warships, and deployed B52 strategic bombers at Qatar’s base of some 10,000 US troops, and redeployment of Patriot batteries, and reinforced its forces with an amphibious attack ship.
The great review of US power has not stopped at this level, there is a vast network of military bases stationed in the region since the first Gulf War in 1991, including a base for the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the third US military base in Kuwait, which has 16,000 US troops, and other forces at the Dhafra base in the UAE with about 5,000 troops, along with its own forces in Yemen, in addition to having an agreement to use Omani ports, facilities and airports.
The United States is stepping up its military presence in the Middle East through ships capable of carrying land landings on Iranian shores. One of the US aircraft carriers makes its way into the sea water in the area. Strategic attack fighters and bombers and Patriot batteries have recently arrived, as if preparing for a decisive battle.
Tehran also threatens the interests of Washington and its allies, and threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, if it could not export its oil. And one of its tools to implement this threat is missile arm that can hit Saudi and Emirates territories and Israel also and a military force that will be able, despite its weakness, to close the strait when needed, apart from its agents deployed in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
In a tense atmosphere like this, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh announce sabotage incidents involving a few ships and tankers. What has been leaked from both sides of the details of those operations is small enough to raise a lot of questions, and not to point the finger to anyone who makes the scene more foggy! While Washington seems reluctant even to hold Tehran agents responsible for the attacks!
The fingers may point to terrorism, especially al-Qaeda, or Iran and its allies. The organization wants to take advantage of the tense atmosphere, perhaps with the interest of a war involving the United States, and the strongholds of extremism on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite rift line that has been burning for more than a decade, it is possible but weak!
Tehran is carrying out its threats by blocking – not preventing – the export of crude across the Strait. Likelihood seems more likely! Attacks such as the latter make it easier for Tehran to deny responsibility for it, while at the same time not embarrassing Washington – and its allies in the Gulf – or forcing them to respond militarily if the latter has no desire to escalate. The evidence for that is the recent targeting of the Houthis to the pipeline, which allows the export of nearly half of Saudi oil production, across the Red Sea, without the need to cross the Straits of Hormuz. As if Tehran threatened through its agents to raise the cost of any military escalation. Not only on Riyadh, but Washington in the first place, as a result of the dramatic rise in prices of crude after the exit of the entire Saudi production in addition to other Gulf countries from the markets.
This is enough to arouse the fury of America’s allies and enemies alike, and raise the political and economic costs of any military adventure of this magnitude, especially since they do not enjoy international legitimacy either through a decision of the Security Council or an alliance of those interested. As for the majority of the European powers are not hiding its opposing attitude for any reckless escalation with dire consequences .
Some might see the American fleet as an expression of political will to carry out a small attack on Iranian territory, starting with fabricated pretexts, followed by a surgical strike limited to the destruction of some nuclear reactors and nuclear research laboratories of Iran to delay the Iranian nuclear program for decades without eliminating it completely but taking into account the boredom of America and its people from wars, Trump’s electoral promises and his tendency to withdraw US troops deployed in some hot spots, the focus of the US National Security Strategy and the Pentagon to mobilize energies in the face of the rapid rise of the Chinese dragon and deter the Russian bear who has been waken up from his coma , the chances of this hypothesis diminish .
A Katyusha rocket that exploded near the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the ministries of the Iraqi regime and foreign embassies are concentrated, once turned Iraq into a new focus for the collision course between the United States and Iran. With an automatic response, the shooting was attributed to the pro-Iranian forces or Shi’ite militias centered around Baghdad, which apparently wanted to send a message to the US administration and the Iraqi government not to be under American pressure.
As in previous operations against Saudi ships in the Arabian Gulf, there is no information about who is in charge, but it is clear who is being targeted. American pressure works in two tracks, the first wants to separate Iraq’s economy from Iran’s economy, and thereby closing the expected gap in sanctions on Iran .Thus trying to enable US forces to use Iraqi territory as a launching pad for attacks against Iran in the event of a violent confrontation.
The US blockade of Iran began by making the economic benefits of the nuclear deal zero, officially known as the “Common Comprehensive Action Plan”, by withdrawing from it, re-imposing economic sanctions, and then moving to work on making Iran’s oil and gas exports zero, and then it was extended to include Iranian Iron, steel, aluminum and copper sectors to be added to the sanctions list.
The economic siege was followed by a military siege that began to classify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. This was a painful blow to the Iranian regime where the IRGC controls the Iranian state and holds about a third of the Iranian economy. The military blockade then developed to mobilize a striking naval and air force, in line with the Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy to counter what it sees as an Iranian threat.
On August 16, 2018, the Trump Administration set up a working group, called the Iranian Working Group, headed by Brian Hook, director of planning at the State Department, to implement the strategy.
As for the goals of the US escalation against Iran, the administration has declared that it does not want war with Iran, but will respond “quickly and firmly” to any “attack” by Tehran or any of its allies on American interests.
It is clear that the aim of the current escalation is to drag Iran to a negotiating table under the American ceiling. But that will not be as easy as Trump imagines, as Tehran wants negotiations on its own terms and in its own way, through preparation and output appropriate to the rhetoric of resistance, determined by Tehran itself.
What strengthens Tehran’s position is American behavior with North Korea, where Tehran has studied that experience and absorbed its lessons. There is no concession except in return for a concession, which means a series of bargains may take longer than the Americans imagine. The Iranians are adept at maneuvering and procrastination.
The US administration knows that all the international powers, from Russia and China to the European Union, most of Latin America and Africa, do not favor Donald Trump’s policies, but rather generally reject them. Tehran knows that its chances of facing such a large volume of US bases, equipment and arsenal in direct military confrontation with America are very weak, especially given the blockade and the impact of the accumulated economic sanctions on Iran, the war can not be a realistic option for the Iranian political leadership, both conservative and reformist.
However, this imbalanced military equation did not prevent Tehran from showing its ability to confuse its opponents and surprise them with methods, tactics and tactics they did not reckon with, including many attributed to Tehran of carrying out attacks on commercial ships in the Gulf or inciting Houthis to hit oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia.
Tehran, on the other hand, knows very well that rejecting the American approach will not only bring more support from Washington’s enemies than condemnation. But it may be imagining that it can turn some international positions to its own advantage and might imagine that it can emerge strong and victorious in a limited military confrontation if it happens, depending on its extended arms and multiple options, it spreads over a geographical area that includes the Middle East and part of Africa, which grant Iran additional capability on initiative and surprise.
Despite the statements of the US and Iranian parties that indicate no desire for war, the Iranians are trying to show that they are ready for war, and that they have surprises that confuse opponents. On the other hand, there are reports of American preparations for the war, including the arrival of the American military hospital Mercy Class, which includes 1000 beds to the Gulf, and military and security measures and raise the readiness of US forces in the region, will the competition take place between American arrogance and Iranian savvy ?
Unbalanced military spending with resources has had a negative impact on economic growth, with inflation rising from 11.9% in 2014 to 34.9% in 2018. Unemployment also rose to 25% of the population, while 40 million Iranians live below the poverty line ; half the population in a country with 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
Iran’s military budget in 2018 rose by 33 per cent from 2017, while the health budget fell by 23 per cent and the education budget dropped to 8.4 per cent of the country’s total budget.
The budget deficit for the year 2018, presented by the Iranian president before the parliament by 28 percent, and the budget of 2019, which was to be sent to the Iranian parliament is still in consultations to change on the basis of “reforms of ” Khamenei.
The exchange rate of the Iranian currency to its lowest level ever, losing more than 85% of its value against the dollar to 43,166.90 Toman against the dollar.
The main reason for the economic situation in Iran is the IRGC’s control of about 55% of the country’s GDP and the use of these funds to support armed sectarian militias operating outside Iran.
The rise in debt, the rise in taxes, the decline in the productivity of the private sector, and the decline in savings and investment rates have led the Iranian people to go to the streets to express their discontent and internal protest in angry demonstrations that took place months ago in most Iranian cities.
Without Iranian support, the Assad regime falls, it would be a term long repeated by Iranian officials. No one would deny that without Iranian support for the Assad regime, it would have been possible to fall, whether it was through direct military intervention through Hezbollah and Shiite militias brought by Iran from various countries, or through economic support, especially with regard to oil supplies.
In exchange for its support, Iran has signed many agreements with the Assad regime, through which it obtained some material gains, but all these future gains can cover only the little part of what Iran spent in cash in Syria. Especially since the Assad regime signed the sale / rent of some government institutions to the Russians and Iranians at one time.
In a joint press conference between the foreign ministers of America and Russia, it was clear that the Russian side was indifferent to the American mobilizations and threats against its Iranian strategic ally, suggesting that there was an agreement between Washington and Moscow on Iran.
More striking is the statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin when he blames Iran: “Iran would rather not withdraw from the nuclear agreement and we can not save everyone. He added ” Once Iran takes the first steps as a reaction, and declare its withdrawal from the deal, the next day everyone will forget that the United States was the initiator of the collapse of the agreement, and will blame Iran. Public opinion, and the world, will take action in this direction. ”
“Russia is not a fire brigade and we are unable to save everyone,” Putin said. The last sentence seemed to be an open message to Washington that Moscow was ready to swap Tehran if necessary.
If Washington does not want war, why are all these huge military buildup and this show of force, and if Iran is ready for negotiations, why not sit on the table so far? If it is a deal of the century , most of it has been accomplished , does the little remaining section need for all this noise ? An American engineering process that redefines the Middle East region has been cooking for some time. Has Trump’s management begun before its maturity?
The American escalation through the policy of the big stick is aimed at forcing the Iranian regime to engage in dialogue with the United States, but the Trump administration wants this dialogue in its own way and in accordance with the twelve terms announced by Mike Pompeo before and include the three files which are the cessation of Iran’s nuclear program and its ballistic missile program and support terrorism, It is not the Obama-style dialogue, which has focused on a fragile nuclear deal and the ignorance of other files such as ballistic missiles and Iran’s support for terrorism.
On the other hand, Iran does not have the capabilities to engage in a direct war with Washington, which can not bear it and has no interest in such an issue. The two sides’ statements are high-ceilinged, but they come loaded with emphasis on the lack of intent to collide. Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for the first time in Iran’s history, offered to publicly negotiate with the United States about detainees. In return, Trump declared his intention to negotiate openly, pointing out that the goal was to reach a better nuclear agreement and not to harm Iran, he wants to see it as a strong country with a strong economy. The clear message is that any step in the wrong direction will lead to war, the initiator will be responsible for it, the realization by both parties of these facts makes the likelihood of a war weak – unless one of the parties is mistaken – and makes the negotiations a common interest of the two parties.
The biggest question that arises after the “review” this week is where is the US “extreme pressure” strategy? It seems clear that the Iranians are feeling the pressure and are looking for ways to respond to it, including what Tehran announced on Wednesday about its intention to suspend commitments in the nuclear agreement. Iran is in a state of confusion over the positions of the US administration, and what its ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Rawanji has said, was an evidence for that. When he was asked about Tehran’s willingness to sit down with the current US administration to renegotiate, Rwanji replied: “So suddenly, Trump says I do not want the agreement and let us sit down and talk about a new round of negotiations. What are the guarantees that he will not return and retreat from the new negotiations? ”
A direct US military attack on Iran could trigger a multi-party war in the region that is unlikely to be confined to the two countries’ forces, with international and regional forces on both sides of the conflict pushing for such military confrontations.
Western political analyzes believe that the war on Iran will be the prelude to redrawing the map of the Middle East. Iran’s geopolitical rise is the most dangerous and important development of this century. “While President Trump’s new national security strategy underscored Iran as one of the most important challenges to US national security, it did not offer any coherent strategy in which steps were taken to counter the growing Iranian threat in the region.
Trump must imitate President Ronald Reagan, who followed an offensive policy to weaken the former Soviet Union. Through this strategy, Reagan supported the local anti-communist forces around the world .Today, America must support the forces that want independence and freedom from Iranian influence .Therefore, the United States must maintain a military presence and provide military support to local forces in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, it needs to support its regional allies, especially Jordan and Israel, which must contain provocative actions by Iran and its proxies. However, this offensive stance will not be enough to contain Iran as well as change the course of events.
The United States must recognize Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon in their own situation: artificially failed entities under Iranian hegemony. Tehran has benefited from the collapse of the Caliphate in order to strengthen its power over these four countries. Makovsky believes that maintaining the status of these countries in the current form will serve only Iran and nothing sacred about the borders of these countries, which apparently drawn by the drunken maker and blindfolded. Certainly, the lack of respect by the organization of “Da’ash” and Iran for these borders has shown chaos and insignificant.
Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon are not Qatari countries, but are artificial entities in the post-war period. They originated from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in a huge and failed experiment by world leaders. “These countries are characterized by ethnic-sectarian divisions, they were united in one entity under one dictator ruler and suffered a lot from Sectarian Crimes. Hence Iran’s weakness stems from its reliance on repressive regimes that control regions plagued by ethnic-sectarian divisions. Therefore, the United States must exploit this vulnerability, focus and support forces that oppose Iran’s hegemony and want independence from the capitals of their countries. The result will be open confederations or new states based on natural sectarian boundaries.
Western political analysis recognizes the difficulty of redrawing political relations and borders and the inability of the United States to control outcomes but can influence them. Hence, there is a need to go deeper in the history of each country and study its own characteristics and consult with allies before adopting this policy. It is an example of support for the establishment of a Kurdish state in Iraq and the cessation of military support for Baghdad, which will govern federalism without Kurdistan. For Syria, an ethnic confederation or separate states can be established that are equivalent to each other: Alawite state under the domination of Iran on the coast, a Kurdish state in the northeast and a Sunni Arab state in the heart of Syria. And America to show that it is not anti-Shiite, it may improve its relationship with Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite and secular state close to Iran. A good outcome of this approach is its impact on Iran itself, where large-scale Kurdish and Azeri minorities live, weakening the state itself. Some may argue that this approach is not practical and affects the stability of the region and gives Iran new opportunities. The author states that the course of the region is dangerous and America will face the burden of adapting to the new borders and responding to Iranian aggression. In the opinion of the writer that Tehran is not a hegemonic force satisfied with the status quo, but an expansionary force that wants to destroy Israel, the only country that the author did not mention that it has no borders and expansion ambitions greater than Iran. The writer also calls for confronting Iran’s nuclear project and ballistic missiles that could reach American soil. Makovsky goes on to discuss his idea that artificial countries have been divided or broken up with certain successes, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bosnia is administered specifically through a confederation. The writer finally calls for Trump to practice a new havoc in the region in his war with Iran by explaining that the Middle East political structure serves Tehran and Trump must dismantle it.
International Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies