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Andrzej Kohut  4 września 2019

Do Americans want another war in the Middle East?

Andrzej Kohut  4 września 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

Although cancelled at the last minute, the planned strategic bombardment of military targets in Iran shows that many prominent American politicians are pushing for a military conflict with Iran. In response to the unmanned spy plane (worth US $ 130 million) being shot down, the Americans wanted to bluntly show that Iran had crossed the thin line. The attack was supported e.g. by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; however, it was stopped at the last moment by President Trump’s decision, and retaliatory action was limited to cyberspace.

Short-term peace

On May 8, 2018, Trump officially pulled the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. The agreement, whose full name is The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was one of the major successes of Barack Obama’s international policy, but his successor had already criticized it very much during his election campaign, seeing it as an insufficient measure to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The agreement assumed that the Iranian nuclear program would be very restricted: the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium was to be reduced by two-thirds (and more advanced centrifuges were to be discontinued), the stock of low-enriched uranium was to be limited to 300 kg (previously approaching 10,000 kg); Iran would also refrain from acquiring highly enriched uranium (which could be used to build a nuclear arsenal), and R&D work in this area was to be limited and undergo strict international supervision. This plan was to remain in force for ten years, until 2025. Later on, during the next five years, the restrictions were to expire gradually. It was assumed that in 2030, 51 years after the Iranian revolution, those responsible for it would no longer have an influence on the country’s authorities, and the lack of restrictions for Iran would no longer pose a threat.

Such justification, however, did not convince Iran’s neighbors but also close US allies in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia. In their opinion, the prospect of only a temporary limitation, and not complete elimination of the Iranian nuclear program did not guarantee security in the Middle East.

Also, accession to the agreement was connected with the abolition of sanctions imposed on Iran, which brought great benefits to the country. The Iranian economy, which had been going through a serious crisis before 2015, exploded, recording almost 17% GDP growth by the end of 2016. These were not good news for countries that fear Iran. That’s why when one of the most pro-Israeli presidents in history sat at the White House, who also recognized the crucial nature of good relationships with Saudi Arabia, it was a matter of time before the agreement would be terminated. The aim might have been to negotiate a much more restrictive agreement or stifling Iran’s economy and bringing about a change of power in that country. Maintaining the status quo could not have been attractive.

However, other signatories to the agreement did not share the US vision, stressing that so far none of the inspections has shown Iran to break the terms of the agreement. The European countries, headed by Germany and France, have tried to do everything to keep it in force, convincing Iran that it may be beneficial for it, even after the US withdrawal. This assumption turned out to be untrue. Trump imposed severe sanctions on Tehran, which particularly affected the Iranian oil trade. Just before Trump terminated the nuclear agreement, Iran’s exports were 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. Today it does not exceed 400-500 thousand barrels, by various estimates. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s economy will shrink by about 6% this year. Europe failed to help Tehran because European companies had no intention to risk losing access to the US market in exchange for dealing with Iran – and such threats were put forth by the US administration.

Iran will not stand by and watch

After terminating the agreement, the first tensions were soon to come. Iran has already announced that it will cease to comply with JCPOA provisions and that in June their stocks of low-enriched uranium will exceed the agreed limit of 300 kg. There’s a long way ahead to building an atomic bomb, but the signal sent by Tehran is clear – further pressure on the Iranians will not remain unanswered.

There was also military action: in two independent incidents, a total of six tankers were attacked while crossing the Gulf of Oman. Iran did not officially plead guilty, but the Americans had no doubts (or didn’t want to) that Tehran was responsible for the attack.

It can be presumed that this way the authorities in Tehran wanted to signal another potential cost of the conflict – a threat to the global oil trade, about 30% of which flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman just off the Iranian coast. If the Iranians opted for a blockade, oil prices might skyrocket, translating into a global price increase and – probably – an economic crisis. After all, that’s what happened in 1973, when the Arab states decided to rapidly raise oil prices in retaliation for the western countries supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The second such oil crisis broke out six years later as a result of the revolution in Iran.

Another warning signal from Tehran may be the attacks made on targets in Saudi Arabia from Yemen’s territory, where there is a civil war between government forces (supported by Saudis) and Huti rebels (who can count on Tehran’s support). This conflict, therefore, is a proxy war between the region’s most important players. Bringing out large-scale military operations outside Yemen’s borders may become another on the list of troubles that await the American president if he decides to escalate the US-Iran tension.

Americans do not want war

In his tweet, President Trump most probably strongly coloured the reality, telling about his decision to call off the attack. Washington Post reporters suggest that Trump did not learn about the number of victims 10 minutes before the attack since the procedure requires that this kind of information be provided much earlier. The number of victims was not entirely accurate, either – 150 – as it concerned the maximum number, had the attack been carried out in broad daylight, while it was planned at night. The decision to call off the bombing was probably not made at the last moment, but about two hours before the planned strike. However, the most untrue thing about the tweet was its general oratory – Trump did not resign from retaliation for humanitarian reasons. He did so because it might have backfired on his currently most important goal – re-election in 2020.

In 2016, Trump was heading towards the White House, declaring at least a partial return to isolationism. America, exhausted by wars, tired of the role of the global policeman, was to significantly reduce its involvement in the world and focus on improving the living conditions at home. Its allies were to take better care of their own safety, American soldiers were to return home, and exotic wars were to disappear from the Washington agenda once and for all.

Can president fighting for re-election go in a completely opposite direction?

The neoconservative concept of spreading democracy and the rule of law with the use of commandos and ballistic missiles has been compromised enough in Afghanistan and Iraq. The financial costs of these operations are haunting the American budget to this day. The possible war in Iran gives no hope for a more positive solution and may bring about even more expenses and more deaths. And coffins with American soldiers are a very bad background to an election campaign.

Let us not forget that the key element to give Trump the next four years in the oval office are the very good results of the American economy. This is the message of his new electoral slogan, which he had tested out while launching his campaign in Orlando, Florida: „Keep America Great” – everything’s fine, let’s keep it that way.

But what if the reality undermines this narrative? What if an increase in oil prices results in a crisis and the New York Stock Exchange indices go plummeting down? Most likely, this kind of thinking led President Trump to call off retaliation against Iran. One might conclude that war seems unlikely, as it would seriously harm the American president’s personal interests.

It is advisers who decide on wars, not citizens

We cannot be certain, however. If only for the fact that not all of President’s personal interests speak against the conflict. Among the billionaires supporting Trump’s campaign, some businessmen loudly demand a more radical approach towards Iran. These include Sheldon Adelson, owner of one of the largest US casino chains, who gave Trump and the Republican party over USD 200 million support in the 2016 and 2018 elections. In 2013, during a meeting at the Yeshiva University in New York, Adelson postulated dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran „somewhere in the middle of the desert, where no one would be hurt. Perhaps a few rattlesnakes and scorpions. And then say: see? The next one will hit the centre of Tehran.” In his opinion, that would force Iran to make more concessions in negotiations. The desire to retain the support of people like Adelson requires Trump to hold an aggressive stance towards Iran. Not necessarily war, but certainly not a softening position either.

A position that for the last months has been largely influenced by the hawks in the Washington administration, especially John Bolton, the presidential security advisor. Bolton, who is known for arguing for a war in Iraq while being a member of the Bush administration (he was then undersecretary of state), has long suggested putting maximum pressure on Iran. But not only Iran; Bolton also insisted on sending troops to Venezuela, which supposedly angered Trump very much. In the case of the current conflict, Trump also does not trust his adviser in all things – as shown by the story of the cancelled strike – but his influence cannot be underestimated.

Just like the influence of allies. The decisive clash with Iran is advocated by Israel, for whom Tehran is a strategic threat. Trump has repeatedly shown his commitment to Israel by transferring the American embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights. The latter was supposed to improve Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election result. Netanyahu won the election, but he failed to form a government, so we’re in for a replay this autumn. Gestures of support will again be in high demand.

The list of factors that could potentially lead the US towards war can go on further. One must remember that the Trump administration is heavily depleted. The president cannot even rely on the advice of a competent secretary of defence, because since December 2018, when General James Mattis had resigned, it remains vacant. Besides, this is nothing out of the ordinary. In the current US administration, over 250 out of over 700 senior positions (requiring approval by the Senate) are vacant.

The decision regarding a possible war is unlikely to be blocked by the congress (which constitutionally holds the right to declare war). After the attacks of September 11, a resolution was passed authorizing the president’s actions against terrorism to such scope and using such measures as he deems appropriate. US presidents have been using this in all conflicts for the past 18 years. Trump’s lawyers will easily prove that this provision is applicable here as well. Especially, considering how the US has already recognized the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization in April.

However, the biggest problem may be the tensions already present in the conflict zone. This was shown by the American drone being shot down by the Iranians and the retaliatory action being called off at the last moment. The Americans have already reinforced their military presence in the region. For now, the Iranians provoke choosing safe targets. However, what happens when, for example, they accidentally shoot down a passenger plane over the Gulf or one of the hot-headed commanders on land will hastily decide to use more serious measures?

A common-sense calculation raises doubts as to the outbreak of a new war in the Middle East. For the US and for President Trump, such a scenario has no happy ending. However, many elements of this complicated puzzle show that an armed conflict between the US and Iran is not impossible.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.