Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2019. © Richard Kemp
Neither the US nor Iran wants war. President Trump was elected partly on a platform that sought to end long-running US involvement in conflict in the Middle East and South Asia. Even if he wanted it he knows better than to engage in a major war with Iran in the run-in towards the 2020 presidential election. Following the traumas of Iraq and Afghanistan he also knows he would be hard-pressed to find allies to fight alongside the US.
As for Iran, the ayatollahs know the immense damage that would be inflicted on their country by war with the US. That alone does not deter them — they would be willing to exchange the lives of thousands of their citizens for the chance to give the ‘Great Satan’ a bloody nose.
But they also know the regime would not survive and to them that is supremely important.
If they don’t want war why are they provoking the US by attacking shipping in the Gulf? Re-imposition of US sanctions following President Trump’s withdrawal from Obama’s nuclear deal has hurt them badly. Even to the extent that they now fear for the survival of the regime.
Their aggression is intended to show Trump that his actions come at a cost for the US and the world, with 30 per cent of global oil supplies passing through these waters. It is also designed to deter him from pushing for wider imposition of sanctions including by European countries.
An important side benefit is the expectation that US retaliation against Iran, short of war, would help rally the people to the regime and ease growing internal dissatisfaction.
There is another contributory factor and that is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the powerful guardians of the Islamic Republic, whose navy was almost certainly responsible for the tanker attacks. The IRGC, behind much of Iran’s aggression across the region including in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Afghanistan, is again flexing its muscles, determined to retain influence over Tehran’s foreign policies.
The IRGC is not acting outside the ayatollahs’ controls or their wishes but its leaders are pushing hard line action which cannot be resisted by those who might counsel greater restraint.
Tehran calculate that any US response will be very limited. Even with a less predictable president than in the past, they base this on long term experience, including the Hizballah bomb attack against US and French forces in Beirut in 1983 which resulted in their withdrawal; the failure of the US to act when Iran provided safe haven to the Al Qaeda management council after they were driven from Afghanistan in 2001; the lack of US response to the killing in Iraq and Afghanistan of over 1,000 American and British troops by proxies using munitions supplied by the IRGC; and Obama’s unenforced red lines in Syria.
The ayatollahs believe they know how far they can push the US before there is a serious backlash against them. They will be particularly wary of inflicting US casualties. We are not therefore back in 1980s tanker wars territory when over 400 civilian seamen were killed and hundreds of merchant ships damaged by Iraqi and Iranian naval forces.
But some of the US responses from that conflict could be useful in this situation including escorting oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. If that plan is adopted the Royal Navy should play a role.
The US and its allies should also continue to work to gain physical evidence of Iranian aggression, including seizing munitions. Then they should start sinking IRGC vessels and again our navy and special forces should join that effort.
Britain should also proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist group as the US did in April. Apart from their actions against shipping we know the IRGC had a role in the Hizballah bomb plot in Britain in 2015 that was revealed last week.
Europeans will instinctively continue to appease Iran. In a BBC interview today Nathalie Tocci, foreign policy advisor to the EU External Action Service, blamed the US for what Iran has been doing in the Gulf of Oman, appearing to justify attacks on civilian tankers by President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
The EU should think again. It is already experiencing Iran’s response to appeasement. Despite shamefully helping them get round US sanctions through the specially established Instex transaction channel, led by the External Action Service, Tehran is now threatening to break its agreement on enrichment of uranium unless the EU provides further protection from US sanctions.
The EU should resolutely condemn Iran’s threats and actions, and it should immediately terminate Instex and reimpose its own sanctions.
We know that appeasing aggressive, totalitarian regimes is the sure path to war whereas taking a tough line often serves to deter. The dangers of timidly avoiding action now in response to a regime that is intent on gaining nuclear capability will have devastating consequences for future generations.
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