May 2019 has seen a marked deterioration in the long-running US-Iran standoff. Back on 8 May Washington announced it had acquired credible intelligence suggesting a possible Iranian attack on US troops on the ground and at sea. Accordingly the Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and other military resources to the Gulf.
On 24 May Vice-Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, announced a further deployment. “We have had multiple credible reports,” he said, “that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack US personnel in the Middle East.”
In response the Pentagon decided to send additional American troops, drones and fighter jets to the Middle East, including some 1,500 US military personnel, a Patriot battalion to defend against missile threats, and a fighter aircraft squadron.
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Referring to a recent rocket attack in Iraq, armed drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations and the sabotage of four vessels including two Saudi oil tankers, Gilday said: “We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership in Iran at the highest levels.”
Iran’s leadership at the highest level, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, has never concealed the fundamental purposes of his administration – total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.
US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. Obama came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength and its political record. In his apology tour, which began in Strasbourg on 3 April 2009, he said that throughout the nation’s existence, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”.
His mention of Iran at that early stage is significant. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar puts it, was to transform US-Iranian relations, with the aim of using Shia Iran to help defeat Sunni Al-Qaeda. In 2014 the Wall Street Journal revealed that Obama had exchanged secret correspondence on at least four occasions with Iran’s Supreme Leader, attempting to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict.
The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event the opposite was the case. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.
In Syria, Iran used its alliance with President Bashar al-Assad to build what amounts to a state-within-a-state, just as it did in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1980s when it set up Hezbollah. By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. In consequence the US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.
Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country…. Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”
Donald Trump denounced both Iran and the nuclear deal from the start, and after he was elected president soon withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions that severely harmed Iran’s economy. He has consistently accused Tehran of breaching the spirit of the nuclear deal and supporting extremist groups in the Middle East. He recently ordered countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran’s oil or face sanctions of their own, and placed new sanctions on Iran’s metals, its largest non-petroleum-related source of export revenue.
Despite a show of bravado, the Iranian leadership is rattled. Though the EU opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and is seeking to maintain its trade ties with Iran, its proposals for economic guarantees have been judged “insufficient” by the Supreme Leader. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has questioned whether Europe has the will to continue with the current deal.
Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morphe into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
Doubtless, against this domestic unrest the leadership sets its success on the world stage. Iran’s geopolitical reach extends through Iraq, into Syria, then to Lebanon and out as far as the Gulf state of Bahrain. The achievement of this strategic Shia Crescent has been a dream of the radical Iranian leadership for decades. It is now a reality. Iran’s leadership feel confident they can out-maneuver any sanctions that the Trump administration may impose.
As for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Iran, in the midst of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.