17 May 2019

Is the US heading for war with Iran?

By Kyle Orton

As tensions flared between the United States and Iran over the last ten days, a number of Washington’s Western allies signalled their distance from the US view of the Islamic Republic, most dramatically in the case of Major-General Chris Ghika, Britain’s top commander in the coalition against ISIS.

Earlier this week he dismissed the US intelligence assessment of an increased threat from Iran. This has since been walked back, but the fissures in the Western alliance over how to deal with Iran are real, and this has been compounded by differences within the US government as well as the highly irregular nature of the Donald Trump administration.

The current furore began on May 5, when US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that a US carrier group was being deployed to the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force”. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan added the next day that the USS Abraham Lincoln and the bomber task force were being sent because of “a credible threat by Iranian regime forces”. On 10 May, the Pentagon announced that it was moving a Patriot missile battery to the Middle East to counter Iran.

A week later, on May 14, Gen. Ghika said: “There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”. He went on: “Am I concerned about the danger [from Iranian proxies]? No, not really.” Ghika concluded: “I have no part of Iran in any of my orders”. The US response was swift and terse. And on Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt clarified that Ghika had spoken beyond his brief since London “share[s] the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran” that the Americans have.

This messaging miscue is part of a larger issue of misinformation and misunderstanding from all sides. On the one side, European states and some in Britain see the US as driving towards war with Iran, and have therefore moved to block this escalation. On the other side, some US officials are happy to build this sense of threat in lieu of a willingness to actually threaten Iran as a bluff to pressure Iran into policy changes.

For a start, there was much less to these apparently minatory military moves than met the eye. Four Patriot batteries were removed from the region a couple of months ago, for instance, and these lumbering conventional means are wholly ineffective to the asymmetric threat that was detected. It was theatre. The carrier group and the Patriot battery deployments were routine, and Bolton tried to piggy-back a threat on these moves. This is entirely in-keeping with Trump’s anti-Iran policy so far, which has mostly consisted of rhetoric attempting to present a regional policy focused on ISIS as having anti-Iran intentions.

The classic case is the US troop presence in Syria, which US military officials never tire of saying is solely for anti-ISIS purposes, yet which political officials will argue has an anti-Iran dimension. The reality is that the anti-ISIS campaign has so far served as cover for US-Iran collaboration and the vast expansion of Iran’s power. The sanctions-heavy “maximum pressure” campaign and the missile strikes against Iran’s proxy regime in Syria only make the point in another way: Trump avoided any serious commitment or risk. When and where it has really mattered — when Iranian troops overran Deraa in southern Syria to land on a third Israeli border or Iran’s terror commander Qassem Sulaymani orchestrated the expulsion of the Western-friendly Iraqi Kurds from Kirkuk — the US has done nothing.

This desire of some US officials to appear threatening, yet have nothing but messaging to work with because the President is unwilling to get into any foreign entanglements, is what has led to things like the ostentatious evacuation of US personnel from Iraq — a measure never taken at the height of the Iraq war — and the administration not pushing back when US contingency plans are presented in The New York Times as if an invasion of Iran is imminent. But there are no parallels between Iraq 2003 and Iran 2019.

The parallel that some see in ‘dodgy intelligence’ dissolves on examination. Yes, US officials told the media the carrier deployment was in reaction to intelligence indicating a “specific and credible” threat, and yes, when examined, it turned out that the intelligence, supplied by Israel, was not as specific as all that — it is unclear whether Israel said Iran was planning to target US interests directly, or to attack allied governments. But the substance has been borne out.

There is no serious doubt that Iran is behind the attacks on Saudi and Emirati ships this week. Britain is as concerned about attacks from Iran’s proxies in Iraq as the Americans. And The Guardian — hardly a paper known to favour either Trump or interventionism — has confirmed that Sulaymani issued an instruction to his proxies in Iraq three weeks ago that “wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off”.

The man who matters is Trump and he has publicly dissociated himself from Bolton’s more hardline stance. Indeed, it has been suggested by analysts close to Iran’s regime that Tehran has responded to what it knows are hollow rhetorical provocations to try to exacerbate this rift and have Trump push Bolton out. In his unscripted comments, Trump has been remarkably consistent about Iran: he does not want to topple the regime; he wants a “better” deal.  Thus, the reports that Trump has opened a backchannel to Iran should be no surprise. The playbook in mind is North Korea, where the administration amped up the rhetoric and then moved to negotiations; that this turned into a fiasco has not registered with the President.

The possibility that a mistake could lead to catastrophe is not inconceivable, but has to be reckoned as among the most unlikely end results of this episode. Iran does not want a war right now and Trump is not willing to wage one. Had the US shown steel at any point when challenged by Iran on the ground in the region, the concern about an uncontrolled escalation might be more reasonable. But the record is clear — in Deraa, in Kirkuk, and soon in Idlib. If they press, the Iranians will only find mush from the Trump administration.

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Kyle Orton is a foreign policy analyst