The Growing Danger of War with Iran (Part 1)

All eyes have been on Comey, Sessions and the UK general election lately, but — while our backs were turned — a major crisis has been developing in the Middle East.

In Syria the assault on Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold, has finally commenced. A variety of actors are involved in the offensive, including Syrian Kurds and US-trained rebels, in one camp, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Russian forces, in the other. In this crowded battlefield, where Assad and his allies are fighting cheek by jowl with their western foes, it has long been feared that a conflict could erupt. And yesterday swords appeared to cross, when the US shot down a Syrian government jet. Russia condemned the action and threatened to target coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates.

The US and pro-regime forces have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks, as the struggle for control of post-ISIS Syria (and Iraq) kicks into gear. Pro-regime militias supported by Iran have advanced southeast towards an American base in Tanf, where they were hit twice by US airstrikes. Then America downed an Iranian drone. Iran seems determined to secure the Syria-Iraq border in the area, enabling the provision of goods and supplies across a land-bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. The US, on the other hand, wishes to counter Iran’s strategic and economic reach.

This escalation is all the more worrying, because it comes at a time of increasing regional instability. Tensions between Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, and its Shia rival, Iran, are more extreme than ever. Riyadh and its allies this month severed transport and diplomatic ties with Qatar over its supposed links to Tehran and support for terrorism. While the Pentagon and US State Department have tried to remain neutral and adopt a conciliatory tone, the president himself took credit for Riyadh’s move in a tweet and then slammed Qatar for supporting terrorism at a press conference.

The Trump administration has clearly picked sides in the Saudi-Iran contest, and is going on the offensive against Tehran. A new Iran Mission Center has reportedly been set up at the CIA to focus exclusively on the country. It is being led by the fearsome CIA officer Michael D’Andrea, nicknamed “Ayatollah Mike”, who was apparently involved in the agency’s drone and interrogation programs after 9/11. His appointment signals a more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic, according to the New York Times.

Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, is very hostile to Iran. He has vigorously opposed President Obama’s deal with Tehran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), concluded in 2015 between the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the EU, which constrains Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. In his first public remarks as CIA Director, Pompeo warned that Iran was “on the march”, beefing up its support to proxy militias throughout the region.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has long been opposed to the Islamic Republic, and told CBS’ Face the Nation in an interview that “wherever there is chaos” in the Middle East, Iran is “at it”. The National Security Council is also staffed with anti-Iranian hardliners, including Derek Harvey, Joel Rayburn, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick. Harvey and Cohen-Watnick reportedly favour military escalation against Iran in Syria, while the latter also supports regime change in Tehran.

Then there is President Trump himself, who during the election campaigned on an anti-Iranian platform, repeatedly criticizing the nuclear deal. At a gathering of the Gulf states and their allies in Riyadh last month, he said, “All nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran”. Then, after IS killed 17 people in Tehran on 7 June, Trump issued a gratuitously insulting statement, warning that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”.

Iran blamed Saudi Arabia and the US for the attacks. In retaliation, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) yesterday launched medium-range ballistic missile strikes against ISIS positions in eastern Syria from western Iran. The strikes were unprecedented — Iran has never hit Syria from its own territory before — and sent a clear message not only to ISIS, but also to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US. After all, Iran could have hit ISIS from within Syria; the strikes were a symbolic display of force.

Concerning though these developments are, panic may be unwarranted. Despite promising to renege on the Iran deal, Trump has so far kept it in place and even certified that Iran is in compliance with its terms. His administration is currently conducting a review of the agreement, but is not expected to withdraw unilaterally. Instead, Trump seems intent on enforcing the deal more strictly, which is understandable given Iran’s history of clandestine nuclear activity.

But, in various respects, Trump is taking a harder line against the country. After the Iranians conducted ballistic missile tests in early 2017, Trump imposed new economic sanctions. At the same time, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn publicly put Iran “on notice” for its misbehaviour. Iran retorted that those sanctions constituted a violation of the JCPOA. Worse still, a more draconian set of sanctions are now being considered by Congress.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week for the new measures, which seek to penalize Iran for its missile activities and target the IRGC. In response to the vote, Tehran again claimed the JCPOA would be violated. It is debatable if these sanctions really do break the terms of the agreement. But they could certainly place the JCPOA under greater strain, and may provoke Iranian countermeasures, leading to a tit-for-tat escalation.

The more such pressure continues, the greater the risk of Iran withdrawing from the deal and developing nuclear weapons or ramping up its missile tests. Trump would then surely be blamed by other parties to the agreement, who are satisfied with its progress and stand to benefit from sanctions relief. US-EU relations suffered when Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, and would likely decline further if the JCPOA collapsed.

Moreover, Trump’s provocations are reckless and unnecessary at a time when Iran’s president Rouhani, who oversaw the nuclear deal and believes in engagement with the west, has just been re-elected. If the US continues to pick a fight with Tehran, the Iranian government may adopt more confrontational policies in response.

Of course the Trump administration cannot be blamed entirely. Iran’s ballistic missile tests are provocative and arguably banned, although the relevant UN resolution contains a loophole. The conflict in Syria and Iraq is not of Trump’s making. Indeed, it seems that Mattis and others in the administration are actively resisting calls for military escalation in Syria.

But there are so many areas of potential conflict between Iran and the US, that events could easily spin out of control. I’ll consider these in Part 2.