Updated: Jan 11
This piece is sequel to my earlier published article on 21 May 2019, “Military Build-up in the Gulf and Heightened Tensions in the Region” and gives an updated analysis on the subject. It was concluded in the referred article, “it is time for China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, CARs, SAARC and OIC countries including Pakistan to shake up UN Security Council as well as UN General Assembly to play her role in stopping the unfolding nefarious and most dangerous US/ Allies’ scheme in the region that is bound to swallow up the global peace. At the least, SCO and CSTO countries can join hands and heads to play diplomatic and other possible role to mitigate the triggering hostilities in the region, and undertake due defensive steps as danger is knocking on every country’s door”; something that had been paid attention to and SCO Summit in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan on 12-13 June 2019 sent out the desired message to the potential war mongers with sobering effects.
Most analysts opine that in the last over a decade, American and Allies’ invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, helped Iran to acquire substantial leverage over regional events, and over the United States, by pursuing a ‘play-book’ in which Iran arms, trains, and funds militias and builds them into significant political and military forces across the Middle East and beyond. This strategy has afforded Iran the capability to strike U.S. personnel and allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. Reportedly, Iran also maintains a robust network of agents in Central Asia, Latin America, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia, which could launch attacks or other armed operations outside the Middle East. Iran has provided some of its regional allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis rebels in Yemen, and Shia militia forces in Iraq, with weaponry as sophisticated as short-range ballistic and cruise missiles—directly threatening two key U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as critical oil choke points. Iranian leadership’s confidence in taking on Mr. Trump may be due to their homogeneous internal front effectively controlled by clergy. But it may have more to do with reassurance from regional alliances and support from EU, regional players like Russia and China, besides Iranian assessment that the war between Tehran and Washington would cause far more problems for U.S. policy and for President Trump politically, than such action would gain. This confidence explains why Iran has been willing to risk potential U.S’ retaliation by allegedly attacking commercial tankers in the Gulf and shooting down the Global Hawk on June 19. Understandably, the Iranian main objective by putting up a bold face and risking increased confrontation with low probability though remains to apply countervailing pressure on President Trump to roll back the sanctions that are choking Iran’s economy and to compel the U.S. administration to restore sanctions exemptions for the purchase of Iranian oil.
On June 20, 2019, President Trump authorized and later reversed his approval for a U.S. air and missile strike on Iranian missile and radar batteries. The strikes were designed in retaliation for the Iranian downing, one day earlier, of a U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft over the Persian Gulf. The decision to abort was ostensibly related to the President’s perception that any conflict with Iran would not remain limited to the Persian Gulf Theater and might result in disproportionate casualties. Even though the strike was abruptly called off, U.S. Cyber Command did launch a cyber attack against Iranian radar and missile batteries and an Iranian spy group with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and connected to the tanker attacks that occurred last week.
Seeing the developments so far, it can be assessed that as was done by raising confrontation levels with North Korea, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico and Venezuela; Mr. Trump tried to bluff his way to “better deals” through confrontation and escalation with Iran too, and without realistically assessing what was achievable or how potential adversaries or even his Allies might react. The EU countries were uniformly critical of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, arguing that Iran was complying with the accord. The EU countries, as well as Russia and China, blame the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign for causing the latest crisis, and several EU states and even Japan have offered to mediate to de-escalate tensions. In the current situation, in contrast to past periods, the United States is virtually alone in confronting Iran, and cannot count on its traditional partners to put pressure on the Iranian leadership to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a growing crisis. The US administration and at least one ally i.e. UK seem to have mutely sided with him as military buildup in the Gulf serves well in the overall context of strategic contest with China and Russia in Asia–Pacific and in Eurasia. Moreover, it may also further embolden KSA and allies and nudge them to up the ante against Iran. Nevertheless, these developments go contrary to the Trump promises of disengaging from all endless wars including Afghanistan and may cost him 2020 US Presidential elections. Therefore, with all the public talk about the potential for conflict with Iran, Trump appears to be looking for a way out. He said recently that he would “like to see [Iran’s leaders] call me,” and he reportedly told the Pentagon that he did not want to go to war. His continued outreach to Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, despite their defiance, also suggests that he may well understand the risks of escalation. Perhaps Trump has, after all, envisaged a future that includes inadvertent U.S. military conflict and doesn’t like what he sees.
26th June 2019
Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and is a writer and consultant on geo-strategic analysis for newspapers, magazines and Pakistan Television Network. (Mail: email@example.com, Website: www.sqbutt.com )