Events are speeding up in the Gulf region with anticipations of military confrontation between the US and Iran. Despite the fact that logical calculations decrease the possibility of this confrontation actually taking place, the pressures exerted on both parties, as well as on the secondary players in the equation, may ultimately result in its materialization.
One thing is certain though, Washington will not allow tensions to calm down without Iran offering Trump’s administration the key to get back at its adversaries on the local front, and Iran’s acknowledgement of the US ability to create confrontations with its opponents without reaching the point of an all-out war. The aim here is to force Iran to sit to the negotiating table devoid of its previous ideologies or accept a US deal to defuse the crisis, without giving Tehran the opportunity to revise or reject the details of the deal.
In the current situation, the US is not only facing off against its opponents, but also against the allies who have their own interests, resulting in a further complication of the crisis. In this case, the US has two choices: engaging in an all-out war with Iran or freezing the crisis. Both options are difficult.
In this paper the ECSS attempts to lay out the calculations of each party involved in the US-Iran standoff. The paper predicts the situation will not escalate to an all-out war. It focuses on how the US will act to increase pressures against Iran in the framework of a time-limited operation to force Iran to present tangible concessions in these three important areas: the nuclear file; the ballistic missile program; and Iran’s expansion of its regional role.
First: The US-Iran Military Escalation
The US increased its military mobilization with a fast pace, taking the offensive formation against Iran amid indications that support the likelihood of the eruption of a new war in the Gulf led by the US against Iran.
These possibilities were solidified by the escalatory wave initiated by Iran’s proxies against the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as bombing the Aramco pipeline of Saudi Arabia, the responsibility for which was claimed by Houthi militias one day after the attack that targeted Fujairah ports in the UAE on 13 May.
These attacks are a turning point in the present test of escalation between Washington and Tehran, especially after the US administration stressed the importance of punishing Iran for threatening the interests of its allies in the Gulf.
Despite the tense mood on both sides, the US and Iran are exercising extreme caution in order not to slip into a direct confrontation. This caution, however, may not necessarily prevent the spark that may lead to war. The current tug-of-war between the US and Iran may do just that.
In this context, there are guiding indications adopted in the policies of both parties. These are:
1- The US Inclination towards Military Escalation
Members of the US administration almost see eye-to-eye when it comes to military escalation. State Secretary Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and National Security Adviser John Bolton agree that the Iranian regime and its proxies have become a threat to the interests and military existence of US allies in the region. The agreement within the US administration is also based on reports released by the CIA that stated that traditional deterring measures, tightening economic sanctions and enrolling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regional militias on the list of terrorists will not curb the growing Iranian threat in the region.
This belief formed a general inclination that waving the possibility of using strategic military power against Iran and its allies may be the next best move.
On the other hand, although Trump and his administration stated repeatedly the US doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, their statements were also accompanied by announcements that going to war remained an option and that Iran posed imminent threat.
The general perception is that Trump doesn’t want to wage war, but US history is replete with similar cases. It can easily be said that most of the wars in which the US was involved took place after US presidents and congressmen expressed their unwillingness to be part of them. Developments on the ground, however, was what led the US to be involved in previous wars, from the Pearl Harbor attacks to 11 September.
Therefore, Trump’s statements that the US doesn’t want to go to war should not be taken for granted.
2- Field Tactics and US Deployment
The nature of US military deployment in the Middle East implies that a show of strength is used as a means of deterrence. The US administration and decision-making circles are still debating how and for how long the war may take place. This means that the final plan for war has not yet materialized.
The current force of US deployment includes USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, the amphibious warship USS Arlington (LPD-24), B-53 nuclear bombs, Patriot guided missiles, F15s and F-35s, in addition to the Fifth Fleet and the support that can be provided by AFRICOM in Djibouti, particularly in the area of the Red Sea, and the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.
Furthermore, the USS Abraham Lincoln participated with the USS John C. Stannis aircraft carrier in a maneuver in the Mediterranean before heading to the Gulf.
Generally, the deployment pattern reflects the possibility of launching aerial operations, within limited bounds, on specific targets, rather than comprehensive military operations that require the instalment of additional deterrent platforms in the locations that would likely be the target of Iranian missiles or those launched by Tehran’s proxies against Gulf countries and Israel.
3- Iran’s Caution and Counting on Proxies
Iran adopts a cautious policy when it comes to direct military confrontation with the US. It has for long depended on its regional allies when escalation was imminent.
When Trump stated, in January 2019, that US forces may move from Syria to Iraq in order to closely monitor Iran, the Iraqi government issued a direct response, diplomatically rejecting – on the basis of sovereignty – Baghdad becoming a platform utilized by the US for such role.
On the other hand, militias loyal to Iran increased their criticism of the US presence in the area, pushing their parliament to terminate the US presence and hinting at a possible military escalation. This problem has been settled, but temporarily, since the US has constantly criticized the role of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, comprising mainly Shias. In addition, in March 2019, the US enrolled the Iraqi Nagbaa militia on its terror list right before designating the IRGC a terrorist organization. There is also an inclination to list Asaab Ahl Al-Haq militias as a terrorist organization.
Perhaps Nagbaa militia was designated terrorist for its role in Syria. Iran moved the militia from Aleppo to the Iraq-Syria borders, on the Baghdad-Damascus international road opposite the US Al-Tanf military base. It is believed the Nagbaa played a role in the escalation of conflict there.
International arms reports point out that despite that fact that Iran decreased its spending on defense, it increased funding for the IRGC that executes foreign operations on the expense of regular forces. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Iran’s defense budget in 2018-19, totaled $24 billion, 53 percent higher than in 2014. That is not to mention the unpublicized spending. The IRGC controls a wide network of assets and firms.
Nevertheless, the sanctions imposed on Iran had a noticeable impact on its arms, especially in its aircraft, radars, vehicles and aerial force. This can drastically affect Iran’s ability to defend its strategic installations on its territories.
Alternatively, Iran will depend on its missiles and naval forces, which have been the focus of Iranian military development in the past decades. Iran’s missiles, sea mines and navy can gravely damage Gulf countries and their oil tankers, especially those in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran, however, will not defeat the US navy, according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation of the US.
Second: Trump’s Iran Strategy
Former US president Barack Obama’s policy on Iran was based on the possibility of separating its nuclear program from its controversial role in the Middle East, and that reaching a nuclear deal would calm the Iranian policy that destabilizes the region. Obama believed that Tehran’s integration into international markets will adjust its aggressive policies and then it into a constructive regional power.
The foreign policy of Trump’s administration, however, didn’t focus only on how far Iran would commit to the 2015 nuclear deal. The agreement, according to the US administration, failed to draw a ceiling for Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The administration also focused on Iran’s regional role in the Middle East, regarded as a source of instability in the region, as well as the financial and military support Shia militias receive in many Arab countries.
Adopting a hardline approach towards Iran, Trump fired four White House officials during his first year: National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster, State Secretary Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff Jon Kelly.
The four officials had stood against Trump’s strict policy on Iran.
Replacing McMaster and Tillerson were Bolton and Pompeo, respectively, who advocated hardline policies against the Iranian regime, going as far as calling for declaring war on Tehran, even before they took office. Hence the term “hawks” given to the team favoring war against Iran within the US administration.
Headed by Bolton, the US hawks play a central role in escalating the US confrontation with Iran, pushing for military action. It was, after all, the national security adviser, not the secretary of defense, who announced the news of sending the USS Abraham Lincoln and upgraded CRLs to the waters of the Arabian Gulf, sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that attacking the interests of the US or those of its allies will be met with force.
A year after the US unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018, the US administration’s strategy was based on changing the Iranian conduct and the Islamist regime through four means:
1- Economic Sanctions
The US re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran after it had lifted them on 14 July 2015 upon signing the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. The sanctions include Iran’s trade allies from countries, corporates and businessmen that violate the sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Through the embargo the US aims to decrease Iran’s revenues from exporting its crude oil, which is basically the lifeline of Tehran, to approximately zero. Which is why the US declared in late April that it would terminate the exemptions it had previously allowed China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey to import a million barrels of Iranian oil per day.
Trump and the US hawks are constantly voicing out the threat that the military option is available to retaliate against direct or indirect Iranian attempts to threaten US security and interests. This is the reason why the USS Abraham Lincoln moved to the Arabian Gulf: to deter Tehran from thinking it could possibly target the US interests or soldiers or even those of its allies.
3- Unveiling the Aggressive Iranian Regime
The US administration is convinced that outlawed regimes such as Tehran’s fear nothing more than revealing what they do. This is why the US constantly seeks to unearth the Iranian regime’s illegitimate sources of revenues, its malicious activities, the corruption of its religious and political leadership and the cruel persecution its citizens are systematically subjected to.
4- Targeting Iran’s Regional Proxies
The US policy against Iran is not limited to targeting the regime, its leadership and its sources of revenue. It is also focused on targeting Tehran’s proxies in the Middle East, foremost among which is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and supporting the Saudi-led Arab coalition in its war against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The US, in addition, designated the IRGC a terrorist organization. This was the first time Washington made such a designation regarding a body affiliated to another government.
Within the somehow successful framework of this strategy with North Korea, that accepted sitting to the negotiating table and discussing its nuclear program, the Trump administration is attempting to push ahead with its strategy on Iran, which is suffering dire economic conditions that led to a wave of violent protests that threaten the future of vilayet-e faqih regime and push it towards negotiating a deal concerning its nuclear and missiles programs, Tehran’s regional role and conceding to US conditions in forthcoming agreement.
This strategy, until the time being, has caused grave damages to Iran’s economy and stability, but it has also failed to force Iran to negotiate a new nuclear deal or decrease its funding and support of terrorism and regional armed groups.
Despite this failure, the White House has not paused to re-evaluate its position and policies, moving instead towards military escalation with Tehran.
Third: European Countries Signatory to the Nuclear Deal
Britain, France and Germany, that signed the nuclear deal of 2015, unanimously reject escalation against both the US and Iran. But they seem to be closer to adopting the US and Saudi scenario that sees in Tehran the main source of instability in the region. These European countries have threatened Tehran to adopt a series of measures if Iran goes ahead and turns its threats into actions. The UK Foreign Minister, for example, said violating the nuclear agreement would be of consequences.
Recently Iran informed China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK of its decision to seize its commitment towards a few of its obligations mandated in the 2015 agreement. The statement was made one year after the US withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions against Iran.
The European countries didn’t respond to the US escalation in a manner satisfactory to Iran which was hoping European reactions may lessen the intensity of the US position. Consequently, Iran’s national security council decided to halt its commitment to some of the obligations mandatory according to the nuclear deal. Iran vowed that if a new nuclear deal was not reached within 60 days it would continue its uranium enrichment with a percentage higher than the 3.67 percent allowed by the current deal between Tehran and international powers. This was when Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei said in a defiant tone that enriching uranium to the levels allowing the manufacture of nuclear arms “will not be difficult” for Iran.
Some observers believe this Iranian statement was merely a reaction to the harsh sanctions the US imposed on Tehran and the European countries’ inability to stand against the US. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran is adamant on taking escalatory measures or resuming its nuclear program.
On the other hand, other observers opine that Iran’s statement will yield unwanted results for Tehran and force European countries to grow closer to Washington.
For the time being Europe believes that Iran is too weak and that it can only go into an even war, be it directly (in the Strait of Hormuz) or indirectly (by supplying militias with ballistic missiles), and continue funding terrorism.
It is worth noting that unveiling the Iranian attempt to kill opponents of the Islamic republic in Denmark in October 2019 caused rage within Europe’s political circles, preventing talks of narrowing the gap with Iran for a while.
The Europeans believe that Trump doesn’t want to go to war nor to topple the Iranian regime (since the region cannot tolerate more chaos), but that he is seeking to strengthen his position in negotiations by forcing Iran to backtrack on its threats. Which is why Europe doesn’t give much attention to Bolton’s statements. But at the same time Europe is holding its breath fearing a catastrophic military escalation. On 7 May 2019 an influential French magazine ran an article on the probable war scenarios.
Maybe there is not much space to write the details of each of the European countries’ opinion about the current US-Iran impasse, but there are some who believe that Europe’s primary mission is to improve relations with Tehran and to not be blindly driven behind Washington.
These include Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini, Italy, Spain and Austria, that played a key role in toning down the European statements that condemned Iran’s activities in the field of missiles and its attempts to assassinate its opponents. Worth noting is that Poland, which generally sides with Washington and had hosted an anti-Iran conference, is still holding on to its part of the nuclear deal and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA).
It is clear that any escalation against Iran will force the Europeans to line behind Washington since they can’t enforce calm without working with China and Russia – a policy that will not please the US and other European countries.
Fourth: Russia and Measures to Deter Iran
Russia and China similarly regard US escalation against Iran. The two countries clearly stated their stance on 13 May 2019 at a joint press conference of their foreign ministers. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi stressed the necessity of maintaining the nuclear deal with Iran. They said the US sanctions against Tehran, particularly against its oil, were not legitimate because the articles of the deal included clear items that stated that Iran made certain commitments voluntarily and that Iran had the right to stop abiding by them in case the other parties signatory to the deal didn’t commit to them.
Therefore, Iran’s announcement after the US unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal has to be put in the right context. It doesn’t mean Iran will withdraw from the deal. On the other hand, the JCPA validated by the international Security Council allows Iran to export its oil to international markets without naval obstacles – such as those imposed by the US. Based on this, Russia and China are requesting the European parties that signed the nuclear deal to commit to their part.
The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning the US sanctions against Iran and demanding the resumption of trade between Iran and world countries, especially in the energy field.
This, however, doesn’t mean that Russia is in complete harmony with Iran. The two countries don’t share a common vision on how to settle the Syrian crisis. In fact, Russia was aiming to curb Iran’s influence in Syria to protect its interest. Moscow, in addition, was supportive of the idea of expelling foreign forces from Syria, including Iranian troops. Russia believes that Iran’s influence impedes stability in Syria and prevents its reconstruction.
The fact is, Russia doesn’t want the US to restore its hegemony in the Arab region. Russia and Iran’s interests meet where they both want to curb the US direct presence in the region. But it is known reaching an understanding with the US is easier than confrontation.
The current tensions hovering over Iran may drive the US and Russia to develop warmer relations. During his meeting with the US state secretary, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wanted to “fully restore” ties between the two countries.
Pompeo said that Washington and Moscow supported the formation of a committee to be in charge of drafting a new constitution for Syria. Pompeo added the two capitals discussed other forms of cooperation in Syria.
The statement encourages the possibility of uniformity between the two countries on Syria. Russia, therefore, may have a mediatory role and may pressure Iran to decrease its presence in Syria. Lavrov said there was hope to find a political solution to the Iranian crisis and that Russia was going to help achieve this target.
Fifth: US Allies and Escalation Against Iran
For almost two decades, since Israel has adopted a policy of incitement against Iran, a military confrontation between the two sides was almost always imminent. This is more likely now after Israel saw what it called the failure of Western states to curb Tehran’s nuclear aspirations and their inability to convince Iran to stop its political and military support of the organizations that threaten the peace and stability of the Middle East.
Israel doesn’t see it is enough for the US, Europe, China and Russia to agree on reducing Iran’s nuclear activities to calm its fears about Iran’s nuclear intentions because the 2015 nuclear deal didn’t prevent Iran from developing its long-range missiles.
The 2015 agreement constituted a threat to the allies of Washington and the West after it had given Iran the chance to further interfere in its neighbors’ affairs and offer support to its allies from organizations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, threatening the stability and security of many allies of the West stationed there.
Israel was lately able to achieve a breakthrough. It used its special relationship with the Trump administration to convince the US that it was crucial to withdraw from the nuclear deal, tighten sanctions against Iran, and designate the IRGC a terrorist organization.
In addition, Israel managed to create divisions among European powers regarding the nuclear deal, particularly in the matter of the adding an article that forces Iran to stop the manufacturing of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.
Israel took a number of pre-emptive measures in the past few months, especially in March. It deployed THAAD missile defense system, and the MDA, along with the Israeli Ministry of Defense, conducted a simulation exercise of integrating all Israeli and American defense systems for the first time. Six systems were integrated, and these are: Hetz 2, Hetz 3, the Magic Wand, THAAD, Aegis and Patriot.
The US and Israel also held a joint military exercise in Europe to simulate the launch of thousands of missiles from Iran and Lebanon. This took place at the time intelligence reports were leaked that Iran installed gyroscopes in its missiles at Hezbollah and prepared them to be fired at Israel.
Tel Aviv is also at unease over Mossad intelligence which reported that Hezbollah’s arsenal is estimated at 150,000 missiles.
It is important to note how the US strongly depends on the reports of Israeli intelligence. This was most evident in the US statement released after Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Benn Shabbat recently met with Bolton.
Despite these preparations, Israel is trying to imply that it doesn’t fear a war with Iran. On 17 April 2019, Yochanan Visser wrote an analysis in Israel Today under the headline “How Israel and the US are preparing for war with Iran”. Visser wrote about the joint measures Washington and Tel Aviv are adopting to counter Iran’s long-range missiles, such as deploying THAAD and Aegis. In addition, he wrote, Washington sent its F-35s to US military bases in the UAE.
Visser concluded that war may not be imminent between Iran on one side and the US and Israel on the other, but that the two latter countries want to pressure Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal and its policies toward its neighbors based on the following:
- Israel realizes that having an advanced system in defense against Iran’s long-range missiles fired from Iran or its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon is not protection enough from the damages these missiles can incur. The US and Israeli advanced systems cannot defend against a heavy showering of missiles. Based on experience gained during the 1991 Iraq War, anti-missile defense systems can intercept a portion of the enemy’s missiles, but never all of them.
- Iran is worried things may go out of hand if it directed a limited strike against US forces or its allies in the Gulf, due to the possibility of the US changing its calculations and opting to topple the Iranian regime by embarking on strong military strikes and showering Iran with missiles and air strikes. This will place the ayatollah regime in an awkward situation whether it abstains from retaliation – which domestically weakens the regime that is expecting to gain worldwide support because of the economic embargo and reveals its inability to retaliate – or escalates by conducting a strike against US interests and military bases in the region. The latter option means an all-out war.
In this case no matter how Iran tries to cause damage to Israel and the US allies, the war will leave Iran completely destroyed and will wipe out its ruling regime forever.
In the same context, the Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said that Israel should put into consideration that Iran may take an uncalculated step if it couldn’t withstand the US economic sanctions. He added that Iran might strike Israel if escalation continues between Washington and Tehran.
Based on these factors, it is easy to deduce that Israel doesn’t want military confrontation with Iran. Israel is seeking to tighten sanctions against Iran to force it to offer concessions more than it gave at the 2015 nuclear deal or to engage it in limited military confrontation with the US that ends with an even tighter embargo and embarrasses it on the domestic front.
2- The Gulf
The US allies in Gulf countries are not pushing towards the war scenario. They are merely cautious, evaluating the likelihood of war in terms of cost, repercussions and strategic requirements.
Abu Dhabi, for example, didn’t rush to make the announcement of the Fujairah attacks, nor did Riyadh escalate in its response to the bombing of the Aramco pipeline. Saudi Arabia merely focused on the dangerous repercussions of the incident and its effect on international oil trade. Worth noting is that the Saudi statement was released by the minister of oil not the Ministry of Defense.
3- Proxies Heat up the Battle
This topic can be approached from different angles. On one hand it affirms that the US actions are based on intelligence information that an attack against its allies is expected, which gives the US the prerogative to retaliate. US officials signaled that Iran was involved in moving its regional proxies where the attacks against the UAE and Saudi Arabia took place.
Although Tehran denied responsibility for the Fujairah attacks, instead blaming a third party, the Houthis’ attack using seven drones doesn’t exempt Iran from taking responsibility for the attack because of several reasons foremost among which is that the international investigations conducted on these drones proved they were manufactured in Iran and that it was the latter that provided the Houthis with experience in this field.
In addition, the selected targets carried a different modus operandi. The Fujairah attacks targeted two Saudi oil tankers from among civilian commercial tankers. The operation against the Aramco pipeline using drones is a first.
The timing of the attacks is telling of Iran proxies’ inclination to heat up the battle and provoke the US after the latter insinuated it was waiting for the first shot to come from the Iranian side.
This kind of attacks may occur again against US allies or strategic locations, resulting in the escalation to war.
The US seeks to deter Iran and push it to sit to the negotiating table to strike a new deal that curbs Iran’s influence in the region, serves the US direct interests, be they in Iraq or Syria, and affirms its ability to secure its allies in the region, these being Israel and Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular).
The US has imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran, which is why its use of military tools is primarily a show of force to deter Iran and not necessarily to go to war.
War with Iran means the US has failed to exercise deterring measures and may cause the Iranian domestic front to further unite, increasing the influence of hardline conservatives and their opportunity to tighten their grip on authority.
Iran finds itself between a rock and a hard place and is suffocating as a result of the US embargo. There are two choices available to Tehran: alternating in the tone used in statements between the desire not to escalate and raising the threatening tone to increase its chances for dialogue and avoiding a new battle of negotiations; and activating Tehran’s proxies to conduct aggressive attacks, such as the Houthis’ operation against Saudi Arabia, and sabotaging tankers in the Gulf of Aden – not in the Strait of Hormuz to improve Iran’s ability to damage the interest of the US and its allies.
Tehran and Washington do not want uncontrolled escalation and they are both worried about the repercussions of random escalation that may result from an uncalculated incident or an unwise reaction on the part of a third party that is not directly involved in the conflict.
Gulf countries and Iraq are where anticipated military strikes may take place and may be the operating zone for Iran’s proxies such as the Popular Mobilization Force in Iraq, the Abbasi organization and Zainabiyoun Brigade in Syria, the Houthi militia in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It is safely argued, however, that containing the situation and defusing the ticking bomb between the US and Iran serves the interests of all countries. This is the path to which all efforts should be directed to maintain the stability of the region.
This research paper was first published in: Dr. Dalal Mahmoud, ed., Assessing Deterrent Measures and the Prospects of War: US Military Movement in the Gulf to Confront Iran, Special File, Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Cairo, May 2019.