Brinkmanship in the Gulf gets more dangerous

Columnist  | Talmiz Ahmad

Opinion, Op Ed

President Trump most probably held back due to fear of a larger conflict and American casualties.

US President Donald Trump

The steady escalation of the confrontation with Iran, initiated by US President Donald Trump a year ago when he unilaterally withdrew his country from the nuclear agreement, nearly culminated in war last week. In the morning of Friday, June 21, President Trump said he had ordered a military strike on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an unmanned US drone by Iran the previous day.

The President later said he changed his mind just minutes before the bombings were to begin since he learnt that the strikes would cause 150 Iranian deaths. This cost, Mr Trump felt, was not proportionate to the American loss of a drone, particularly since, in his view, the downing of the drone was caused by a “loose and stupid” rogue Iranian general!

President Trump most probably held back due to fear of a larger conflict and American casualties. But, for now, he has dispelled the fog of war he has done so much to create.

Mr Trump has identified Iran as America’s principal enemy. Throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign he had criticised the nuclear agreement initiated by his predecessor President Barack Obama and several other Western leaders, had promised his supporters that he would personally deliver a “better” deal. He and his officials not only

found the agreement deficient in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also viewed Iran as a “malign” presence in West Asia and as a leading global sponsor of terror.

In May last year, Mr Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement and reinstated sanctions, even as he urged Iran to finalise a new deal. In May this year, the US ended the waivers it had provided to eight countries to import Iranian oil; it enforced sanctions on imports of oil from Iran and severely restricted its access to global financial markets and banking systems.

The sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Iran. Last year, its economy contracted by four per cent, and it is expected to decline a further six per cent this year. The value of its currency has plummeted, while the prices of essential items, such as food and medicine, have soared.

To pressure European countries into easing the sanctions, Iran has said that by June 27 it would increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to over 300 kg, thus breaching the

limit set in the nuclear agreement. A senior Iranian official has added that Iran could consider withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well.

The past few months have seen a heightened level of confrontation between the two countries, taking the Gulf to the edge of military conflict. In May, four oil tankers were attacked off the coast of Fujairah, for which the US has blamed Iran, without offering convincing evidence. In June, two more tankers — one Japanese, the other Norwegian — were attacked with limpet mines; the US asserted, with some pictures of doubtful veracity, that they had been planted by Iran.

On both occasions, the US announced that more military forces were being dispatched to the Gulf to augment the 70,000 troops and significant air and naval forces it already has in the region. As the fears of war increased, the Iranians shot down a US drone that they said had got into their waters — 8 km off the Iranian coast, while the US claimed it had been in international waters.

The US claim has not been found convincing: after a defence department briefing, the New York Times correspondent said the Pentagon had “incorrectly called the flight path of the drone the location of the shooting down” and also did not provide the “context” of the image of the drone exploding in midair.

On Monday, President Trump announced fresh sanctions on Iran, this targeting the Supreme Leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with eight commanders of the Navy, aerospace and ground forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would also be blacklisted. These sanctions deny them access to financial instruments under US jurisdiction. Reports in the US media say the US launched a cyberwar to cripple Iran’s rocket and missile facilities.

Both the US and Iran insist that they are not interested in war, but are prepared if the other side initiates hostile action. These tough US actions are being applauded by Israel and Saudi Arabia, while Iran is said to have mobilised its regional allies — Hezbollah and other Shia militia — if the conflict commences.

The visceral animosity of the Trump administration for Iran and the steady march to war has bewildered many American commentators. Richard Haas is unclear about what the US intentions are: if it is regime change, he does not believe it can be achieved through sanctions and intimidation. Brett McGurk, Mr Trump’s former special envoy on Islamic State matters, sees no clarity in the US objectives relating to Iran. Roger Cohen views a war with Iran as

one of “choice, illusion and irresponsibility”.

The US Congress members are confused about the different voices they hear from the administration. While secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have been pushing for war, Brian Hook of the state department has denied that there is “any talk of offensive action”. President Trump himself has added to the uncertainty by asking his officials to tone down the rhetoric on Iran.

In fact, many see the last-minute decision by Mr Trump to stop the attacks on Iran as confirming “indecision and bumbling” at the heart of the administration and a demonstration of macho posturing by the President in place of a clear strategic approach.

The conclusion is unavoidable that President Trump’s Iran policy is now being shaped and propelled by the extreme right-wing donors, such as Sheldon Adelson and Bernard Marcus, who funded his campaign with millions of dollars and are committed to the destruction of the Islamic Republic. They are backed within the administration by Mr Pompeo and Mr Bolton, who seem committed to forcing a war on the President, with Israeli complicity, by insisting that Iran plans aggressive action on the US and its allies in the region.

It will soon be clear whether President Trump remains true to his core constituency and rejects the “endless wars” the United States has been embroiled in or is dragged by his officials, donors and regional allies into a conflagration that will cause widespread destruction across West Asia and damage global interests for years to come..

The writer is a retired diplomat who has served as India’s ambassador to several West Asian capitals

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