Iran and the USA – two hawks making aggressive signals to achieve aims – while saying they don’t want war… what could possibly go wrong?
The Americans have moved the Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to the Gulf along with other ‘assets. It was going there anyway – what’s significant is the fanfare with which National Security Advisor John Bolton announced it. The ‘assets’ include the USS Arlington, a San Antonio-class ship which transports U.S. Marines, amphibious vehicles, conventional landing craft and helicopters. The Americans are not about to launch an amphibious invasion of Iran from one vessel, but they have enhanced their options for smaller operations including ones involving special forces.
They’ve also sent a couple of extra
bombers and a Patriot missile battery – the latter is a long-range all-weather
air defence system capable of shooting down planes and missiles. B52
bombers F-35s and F-15s jets are now conducting ‘deterrence flights’ over the
The firepower and fanfare sends the signal the U.S. is positioning itself to carry out a quick, limited air campaign at short notice if deemed necessary. There was chatter that Iran might threaten shipping in the Gulf, or, its militia allies might attack U.S targets in Iraq or elsewhere. The Americans have 5 and half thousand troops based in Iraq.
Both sides knew this moment was coming. What did Iran get from the 2015 nuclear dea? Not much. The U.S. has pulled out of it and named Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Inward investment has dried up, oils sales are difficult, the economy is struggling. Iran had to act, not least because the Revolutionary Guard is so heavily involved in various Iranian businesses….
So, massively under domestic pressure, President Rouhani says if the remaining signatories to the deal don’t fulfil their commitments within 60 days – nuclear production restarts. Given American pressure the EU states plus Russia and China are unlikely to help. The Europeans had devised a scheme whereby specified products could be traded with Iran via a third party to avoid falling foul of U.S sanctions. However, devising a scheme and implementing it are two different things.
President Rouhani chose May 8th to make his move – the 1st anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran says it will no longer limit its low-enriched uranium stockpiles to 300 kilograms and will increase activity at the Arak heavy water reactor. Tehran seems to be signalling it believes it can withstand a weakened economy despite knowing things are likely to get worse.
The danger is that Iran may have concluded that the lessons of Libya and North Korea is that is you have a nuclear weapon your regime may survive. If so – the race is on for Iran to get one – and America to stop them.
Against this backdrop events can escalate quickly. The limited sabotage attack on 4 oil tankers off the coast of the UAE highlights that risk. 2 of them were Saudi vessels, one of which was on a voyage to deliver oil to the USA, the other 2 were Emirati and Norwegian. Suspicion about the identity of the perpetrators quickly centered on Iran.
Proof of guilt is not yet present. If it was the Iranians then it could be taken as a demonstration of the viability of a threat the Revolutionary Guard often makes – to take action in the Strait of Hormuz and close it to shipping. Crucially though – it would be an action with enough ‘plausible deniability’ not to spark a war. However, so far there is no evidence and an argument can also be made that Tehran might not wish to risk such a provocation given that if they bring in the Americans militarily there can only be one winner.
Iran’s 60 day deadline runs out in July – between now and then there’s likely to be other diplomatic and military moves, and possibly ‘events’. Military action? Both sides insist they don’t want that – whilst signalling they are capable of it. So far red lines have not been crossed – restarting nuclear production in July would do so.