At some point, the US will end up embroiled in a conflict with Iran. It could even be this year; it could be in a decade’s time. It may be minor; it could be cataclysmic. It could be a violent preamble to triggering long overdue peace talks; or lead to the systematic destruction of a great historic country. But the likelihood is, a conflict will happen.
The status quo is unsustainable. It has all the hallmarks of US-Iraqi relations in the 1990s. As part of the dual containment strategy, Iraq was under lock and key, sanctioned and surrounded. The US Congress actually passed legislation on removing the Saddam Hussein regime. All of this ended in the tragic denouement with the war of 2003 and the subsequent Anglo-American occupation. Neither party backed down. Bush and Blair were determined to pursue the military option. Saddam Hussein’s saw holding out and preparing an anti-US insurgency as his only options.
US-Iran tensions are arguably even more severe. They are longstanding, lasting over four decades. Lives have already been lost. US allies are fed up with they see as Iranian interference. As yet the incident of the four sabotaged boats of Fujairah remains unexplained even if many are looking towards Iran as the culprit.
The Trump administration is placing “maximum pressure” on Iran. President Trump said: "They're in bad shape right now. I look forward to the day where we can actually help them. We're not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy."
US sanctions are designed to cripple the Iranian economy. The latest round hits Iran’s iron, steel, aluminium and copper industries having followed the cancellation of waivers that allowed selected states to purchase Iranian oil. All this is having an impact on the economy with the IMF estimating that the Iranian economy could shrink 6% with inflation topping 37% this year. As ever the real question is whether ordinary Iranians will be made to suffer the consequences whilst the elites continue regardless not least as there are always ways to make huge fortunes busting sanctions and smuggling.
In addition, a huge US military build-up in the region is ongoing. The centrepiece of this demonstration of force is the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier and its strike group. It also includes the deployment of additional bombers to the region, a Patriot missile battery and the USS Arlington, which carries amphibious landing vehicles.
For the moment, Iran is playing its usual game, all defiance with a touch of realism. The defiance was clear this week Yadollah Javani, deputy head of political affairs in the IRGC, denied that negotiations with the US was an option. He warned “Americans will not dare take military action against us.” The touch of realism is the decision not to smash the remains of the nuclear deal quite yet and still pressure the EU and Russia to keep it alive. The Iranian President has given them 60 days to protect Iran from US sanctions or Iran will start enriching uranium.
Iran could chart a very different course, that is not just dependent upon a risky gamble that Trump will not win in 2020. Firstly, it could write off once and for all its ambitions to become a nuclear weapons state. This looks unlikely as powerful factions believe that ultimately it will be Iran’s best insurance against external assault. Secondly, it could try to reach out to some of its foes. Are talks with the US completely impossible? Perhaps with Trump in power. But can it mend fences with some of its neighbours, or at least reduce tensions? Thirdly, Iran could try to act as a more responsible actor in various conflict zones. In Syria, rather than provoke other powers, it could ditch its ambitions for military bases and support for militias. It could scale back its naked anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments or try to cool tensions with Saudi Arabia.
Assuming that Iran does not change tack, it raises the issue of how determined this Trump administration is. Is this just posturing or is the President willing to embark on a war whose outcome and long-term impact is far from clear? Trump himself is not instinctively hawkish having opposed the Iraq and Libyan wars, and being only too keen to get US forces out of Syria and Afghanistan. His two military engagements in Syria outside anti-Isis operations, were merely salvos of missiles not a full-on war. A few strikes on Iran might not be an option, as Iran will in all likelihood respond in some form.
Yet surrounding Trump are those who are far keener. The leading hawk for whom war on Iran is a long-held dream is John Bolton, his National Security Adviser. Aside from reportedly disliking his moustache, the President has always been nervous that Bolton could land him in a war he did not seek. Bolton may be trying right now to chart that course. Democrat politicians are wary. Senator Chris Murphy slams the policy. "There is no endgame. No overriding strategy. No way out. It's just escalation for the sake of escalation."
Whilst there is also plenty of stick to be brandished about, one wonders if the US will also dangle a few carrots. History shows that external pressure on Iran typically plays into the hands of the hardliners. If the US were to define clearly what the carrots might be, this could help those in Iran who want to plot an alternative course.
Perhaps the most likely scenario remains a war by accident. There are no shortage of potential flash-points across the region including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as the Straits of Hormuz. Tensions are high and military assets are on the ready. De-escalation mechanisms are minimal, without even a Washington-Tehran hotline. The chances are this may not be the moment for the US-Iran conflict that seems so likely at some point. If it is, it will rewrite the course of the region just as 2003 did.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.