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Is confrontation between the US and Iran imminent?

  • Paula
There are fears that a confrontation between the United States and Iran could erupt at any moment in the Middle East.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 20, 2019

By this time next week, Tehran will be producing uranium beyond the limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal. It’s not a surprise, as the country has been threatening to partially suspend its commitment to the agreement ever since the US withdrew from it last year. American President Donald Trump repeatedly called it a weak and dangerous deal, and he and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have again been exchanging barbs online.

On Monday, the Pentagon announced that it was preparing to send an additional thousand troops to the Middle East for “defensive purposes”. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan wrote that it was in response to “reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behaviour by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten US personnel and interests across the region”.

The latest announcement comes on the heels of last week’s attacks on two commercial tankers travelling through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route and major transit route for oil. It was the second attack of its kind in little more than a month.

Gulf countries are tightening security measures in order to protect their oil exports, and the American navy has arrived to assist them.

While European countries remain split over who’s behind the attack on the tankers, Washington is convinced Tehran is responsible. The US military released declassified grainy video it says shows a small Iranian ship sidling up to a damaged tanker, and people on the smaller vessel removing an unexploded mine from the larger ship’s hull.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Tehran “is lashing out” because it wants the “successful maximum pressure campaign” being exerted by Washington lifted. Pompeo is convinced that crippling US sanctions against Iran have pushed its leaders into a corner. Indeed, Tehran has threatened in the past to block the Strait of Hormuz as a form of retaliation. It’s as if it is saying that if it cannot sell oil in the Gulf, then it will make sure other countries cannot ship oil through it.

But on the other hand, the nuclear deal that Trump hates so much did not collapse when Washington pulled out of it. The “maximum pressure” campaign has so far not forced Iran to change its behaviour or come to the table for new talks. If anything, it has set up a contest between the leadership of Iran and America that makes backing down harder for either side. Tehran’s clerical leadership, for whom continued existence is a priority that looms above all else, cannot be seen to be giving into US pressure.

Tehran’s leaders might also believe that the risk of military escalation is one worth taking because of the lack of alternative options. No doubt, they are banking on the fact that Trump has stated that he doesn’t want war. But still, they insist they’re not responsible for the hit on the tankers. Instead, they’ve hinted at the possibility of Saudi or American provocation. Lending credence to this is the fact that some of the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world have not, at the time of writing, discovered with certainty who carried out the attacks.

Tehran might also be playing for time in the hope that Trump will not be re-elected come next year November, and that his Democratic successor will restore the Iranian nuclear accord and ease up on sanctions. Why then risk everything by striking at tankers now?

Iran is also appealing to the remaining nuclear-deal signatories to deliver on promised economic benefits. One of the damaged tankers belonged to Japan, and the attack occurred while the Japanese prime minister was in the Iranian capital. Together with Germany, whose foreign minister was also in Tehran recently for talks, the countries are seeking a way to get around American sanctions. In this respect, too, it doesn’t make sense why Iran would want to scupper such political efforts.

However, there is one more explanation. The attacks might have been carried out by one of Iran’s proxies.

In Yemen, Iran backs Houthi rebels who are at war with Saudi Arabia over its support of Yemen President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a man the Houthis deem a Saudi puppet. The rebels continue to pound Saudi targets with drones and missiles, and have hit targets in the Gulf. In response, Saudi Arabia launched a massive missile strike on Houthi-controlled areas in northern Yemen.

The strike on the oil tankers might have been a response by the Houthis to that Saudi attack, but if this is the case, it goes against Iran’s policy which is to neutralise any pretexts for a military clash in the Gulf. The question, therefore, is whether Iran has full control over all the actions the Houthis take or whether the Houthis behave without orders from Iran?

Another possibility is that there could be a rogue element among the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran’s Armed Forces, who want to wreck every possible political negotiation. It could be that while the Iranian leadership seeks out meetings with Japanese and German delegations, some guards could be acting on their own will.

The Israeli leadership has chosen to keep quiet, for the most part, about the latest events. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says something, he talks only in general terms about the risk Iran presents. He’s clearly hoping the US administration will continue to pressure Iran but doesn’t want to be accused of being involved in that pressure.

Trump may flip-flop on many things but the one constant in his inconsistent foreign policy is his position on Iran. But with so many unanswered questions and probable scenarios, it’s not clear what’s really going on.

Should this latest tanker incident be shown to have been caused by Tehran, it will require a US response. Trump, who insists he wants to avoid another Middle-East war, is faced with the choice to step back or move ahead and risk a confrontation.


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