The Growing Danger of War with Iran (Part 2)

In the two days since I published the first part of this piece, there have been more worrying developments in Syria. The US shot down another Iranian-made drone in the country’s southeast, the second such incident in two weeks, and the fifth time in a month that America has clashed with Iranian-backed forces.

Unfortunately, the Syrian theatre is only one of several areas of potential confrontation between Iran and the US. In Part 1, I described the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive posture toward the Islamic Republic, and explained how further sanctions could jeopardise the nuclear deal and provoke retaliation from Tehran. Here I will consider other flashpoints.

Let’s start with US-backed regime change. Secretary of State Tillerson, speaking before Congress, affirmed that the Trump administration was working to remove the Iranian government. His comments prompted strong protest in Iran, with the country’s UN envoy penning a letter the Secretary General, in which he slammed Tillerson’s “brazen interventionist plan”.

President Trump, while not explicitly advocating this approach, told his audience in Saudi Arabia last month that, “The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people” and added that “all nations of conscience must…pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” As I noted in Part 1, there have reportedly been calls for regime change on the National Security Council.

Iran has doubtless beefed up its counterintelligence capabilities in response to these developments. Indeed, even if the CIA tries to unseat the government in Tehran, it may not succeed. Iran has effectively resisted foreign intelligence penetration thus far: its nuclear program, for example, survived and grew despite the assassination of scientists, repeated attempts at sabotage, and the huge “Stuxnet” cyber campaign by America and Israel.

Moreover, CIA involvement in Iran has an unhappy history. The agency, working with Britain’s SIS (MI6), famously toppled the Iranian government before, in a 1953 coup, and restored the Shah as ruler. His brutal tyranny collapsed in the Iranian revolution, which saw the birth of the current Islamic Republic in 1979. The coup has left a deep scar on Iran, and further attempts to unseat the government would doubtless evoke the past.

Indeed, it is unlikely that the Iranian public would welcome regime change. Recent polling suggests a large majority of Iranians view the US unfavourably. In such circumstances, a pro-American regime would struggle to govern, even if it managed to take power in the first place, and would likely have to use force to control the population. That could lead to yet another Middle Eastern civil war and failed state.

Iran and America could also come to blows in the Persian Gulf, where their ships operate in close proximity and have almost clashed before. In March, Iranian speedboats allegedly harassed US vessels on two occasions. Fortunately, the two sides did not attack one another, but such incidents could easily result in shots fired, triggering a larger conflict.

Then there is Yemen, where the US is backing Saudi Arabia’s stalemated war against the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels. The Trump administration seems ready to increase support to the Saudi campaign. James Mattis told the press last month, “We’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country.” But the Houthis, unlike Hezbollah, receive limited Iranian support.

In Iraq, as in Syria, US forces are fighting on the same side as IRGC operatives and Iranian-backed militias against ISIS. If relations with Tehran deteriorate, conflict could break out between the pro-Iranian and American factions. Not only would this hamper the fight against ISIS, but Iraq may revert to the chaos of 2004 and after, when Shia militias fought US forces.

A full-blown US-Iran war cannot be ruled out. Congress is overwhelmingly hostile to the country. Attacking Iran could also serve as a tempting distraction from Trump’s domestic political problems, as former Obama official Colin Kahl noted in a Twitter thread. His only moment of real popularity so far has been the decision to launch airstrikes against Syria.

And yet war with Iran would make the interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan seem like a walk in the park. Those countries were much smaller, weaker militarily, and more isolated internationally. Their regimes were defeated fairly quickly, although the interventions ended in failure. But the Islamic Republic is a much tougher nut to crack.

While no match for US firepower, Tehran has developed a sophisticated asymmetric defence capability. It could try to close the Strait of Hormuz — thus blocking 30% of the world’s oil — and use its fleet of minisubs to target the US 5th Fleet in the Gulf. It also has a sizeable arsenal of ballistic missiles — including some that could hit Israel and even parts of Europe.

Moreover, Tehran could use militias across the region to attack the US and its allies. Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Iranian-backed forces have hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles between them, and could direct those at Israel. While Israel’s air defense systems, such as Iron Dome, are effective, they might be overwhelmed by a hail of enemy missiles.

Furthermore, Iran’s traditional alliance system is stable. And the Qatar crisis could drive Doha closer to Tehran, adding extra clout. By contrast, the Saudi-led grouping is fractious: Kuwait and Oman maintain ties with Iran. Added to that, Riyadh’s finances are apparently declining, partly due to the war in Yemen. And Iran has growing ties to Russia, China, India and Europe.

Conflict between the US and Iran is all the more likely because Tillerson has no back-channel to his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, by contrast, cultivated closer ties with Zarif. For that reason, tensions in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere could be defused. But now the two countries are less able to manage crises peacefully.

Moreover, Trump’s State Department is understaffed and facing budget cuts. The White House, far from coordinating foreign policy from the top, has delegated authority to the Pentagon. There is apparently little deliberation about Syria inside the administration, and no coherent strategy. Without proper planning and leadership, the US will struggle to control events.

Of course Iran has its problems, both domestically and internationally, and Trump is right to be concerned. But these are best dealt with diplomatically, not aggressively. The nuclear deal shows that negotiation can work with Iran. Trump should build on the multilateral framework created by that deal to address other issues.

If he doesn’t, the result may be a conflagration that engulfs the whole region, and even the world.