The evolution of the US-Iran confrontation gets more complex by the day, a matter of smoke and mirrors with multiple accusations and uncertainties, and domestic politics constantly driving international actions.
For Trump, the current complication is that his Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, has suddenly withdrawn his application for the permanent job because of family issues dating back some years. Not only does this leave a leadership vacuum at the top of the Pentagon but Trump’s intended replacement for Shanahan, army secretary Mark Esper, leaves a gap in the army job only a month after the air force secretary, Heather Wilson, herself stepped down.
In spite of this uncertainty, the military rhetoric coming out of Washington is growing tougher. Much is being made of the air force and navy firepower being moved towards the Gulf just as the White House insists that Iran has been responsible for the recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran is not the only country that the US is berating. One of the most senior US military commanders, Paul Selva – an air force general and vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – this week reminded other states which import oil and gas via the Strait of Hormuz that keeping the sea lanes open is not just a US responsibility. If a war comes, other countries will be expected to play a substantial role. Selva pointed out that the Gulf is far less important to the US than it was during the ‘tanker war’ of the 1980s, with fracking and other new technologies tapping more fossil fuels at home.
Interestingly the one country that could contribute almost overnight – the UK (as explained here a couple of weeks ago) – is in the middle of internal political upheavals. The rivals to replace Theresa May at Number 10 are vying with each other to be the most macho and pro-Trump. This is hardly likely to aid rational policy development, as both remaining candidates claim to want to make Britain great again.
Trump’s own rhetoric has been toned down but his problem with Iran remains and is made worse by that country’s own behaviour. It may be difficult to accept that almost everything that Iran is currently doing speaks of a canny assessment of Trump and a coordinated approach, but it is a possibility that does deserves examining.
Iran’s show of strength?
Earlier this week Iran announced that it would step up low-level uranium enrichment. This is the process that produces fuel for nuclear power stations; weapons-grade uranium must be enriched much further. [JR1] The nuclear deal that Iran signed in 2015 with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US – the US withdrew from the agreement last year – limits the amount of uranium it can enrich. Iran said that it would exceed that limit on 27 June. Meanwhile, consider the military and paramilitary happenings of the past couple of weeks.
All the tanker attacks have been low-level, typically using small limpet mines placed above the water line: enough to have an obvious effect but unlikely to cause serious casualties or sink ships. The attacks have all been outside the Persian Gulf, off the coast of the Arabian Sea and in the vicinity of Fujairah. This is the terminus for a pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz, with its Iranian coastline, to bring oil overland from Abu Dhabi.
Another pipeline that avoids the strait runs across Saudi Arabia from its eastern oilfields to a terminal on its Red Sea coast: the Saudis report that this was recently hit by an armed drone believed fired by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, allied to Iran.
In other developments this week, three Katyusha rockets were fired at Camp Taji, an Iraqi army base north of Baghdad where US trainers work. The Balad air base, also north of Baghdad, was hit by mortar fire in a separate attack.
Thus, tankers are attacked outside the Strait of Hormuz showing that bypassing the strait through Fujairah is still vulnerable to disruption, and an alternative pipeline route across Saudi Arabia is also attacked. Add to this the paramilitary attacks in Iraq on two bases used by US trainers of the Iraqi army, along with Iran threatening to respond to Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal, and you get a picture of a country not willing to buckle and also ready to send reminders of how an ‘irregular’ war could be waged.
This could all be coincidence, but it really is stretching things a bit when you put it together. Moreover, the risk of paramilitary attacks is certainly taken seriously by the Pentagon: witness the decision to send 2,500 extra troops to the region to help protect US bases and facilities.
Also being taken seriously is the shooting down of a US navy drone in what Tehran claims was Iranian airspace. The drone in question, a Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, is one of the largest and most expensive uncrewed aircraft in the world, the size of a strike aircraft and costs $182 million apiece. It has a range of over 9,000 miles, can fly for 30 hours and reach an altitude of 60,000 feet. If it was flying anything like that high there will be questions asked in the Pentagon and the White House over how the Iranians could have managed to destroy it.
On the US side, Trump’s unpredictability and bombast, coupled with personnel upheavals in the Pentagon, do not make for sound judgement. Yesterday’s approval and then aborting of attacks on Iran in retaliation for the drone strike could have been a warning, or indecision, or both.
However, there are signs of Washington drawing back. One key indicator is that the US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, travels to Paris early next week to meet senior French, German and British officials. Hook is an experienced White House advisor going back two decades. If the Europeans put serious pressure on the Trump administration to reduce tension, that might just have an effect. The bigger issue, though, is that it may be Iran rather than the US setting the agenda.