The media are full of stories of growing tension between Iran and the US. The attack on two tankers in the Gulf understandably moved oil prices up whilst unsettling investors about possible future escalation of hostilities. The US main allies in the region would like to get the USA more involved in their proxy wars against Iran.
One of the lesser accepted features of the Trump presidency is the marked reluctance to go to war. President Trump will use threatening language, and wishes the world to know he could use the formidable forces he has inherited and is building up further. He is not against the use of force and would if necessary use it. In practice he is sceptical about the wisdom of intervening militarily in the complex religious, civil and tribal wars in the Middle East. He was critical of Barack Obama’s mixture of commitment to force and weak use of it. He seems to think the past interventions of US presidents in various Middle Eastern countries have brought little joy to most of those countries and little advantage to the USA.
Today the issue is the relationship of the USA with Iran and the security of tankers going through the Straits of Hormuz. This narrow waterway close to the Iranian coast could be disrupted by a range of warships and small vessels operating out of Iranian ports, or by shelling from land installations, or by aerial activity from Iran. The USA claims that the attacks on a Japanese and Norwegian tanker recently in transit came from official Iranian forces. They draw attention to the sophisticated nature of the threat and to a photograph of a small boat close to one of the tankers and to a possible limpet mine. Close US allies concur with the US analysis of this and any wider intelligence they mutually have access to.
There is no immediate military response by the USA to this aggression and no threat of a military response. The Abraham Lincoln carrier attack group was sent to the area a few weeks ago, but according to public websites the carrier has not travelled through the Straits into the Persian Gulf itself. The Kearsage Amphibious assault group of ships is also said to be in the less hotly contested Gulf of Oman the other side of the Straits. The USS Bainbridge destroyer involved in rescue from the tankers was some way away when the incident occurred. It looks as if the President is keen to remind Iran that the USA has substantial mobile force that can be exerted from international waters close to the Iranian shore, but as yet there is no obvious wish to use them militarily in direct action against Iran. Their presence there is a deterrent, and a source of intelligence and information on what if anything Iranian forces are doing. The decision overnight to send more troops and equipment to the area seems to be mainly motivated by a wish to defend US installations and personnel already there.
There could be more Trump brinkmanship to get a better deal.
There are various options short of commencing a war. The US could move ships into the Persian Gulf, but this would be a provocation to Iran. The USA could start a convoy system for tankers, which could drag it into exchanges of fire if Iran or some other aggressor still attacked passing tankers. The sanctions against Iran can be intensified, with more pressure on other countries to tighten the commercial screw against the regime.
We need to ask what is President Trump trying to achieve? He regarded the West’s deal with Iran over nuclear weapons as a bad deal. He is not sure it would even achieve its stated aim of stopping Iran developing nuclear weapons. He pointed out that it was a partial agreement, which did nothing to try to stop other manifestations of Iranian power, or to control terrorist groupings sympathetic to the Iranian regime. He wishes to help his main Gulf region allies, Saudi and the UAE, who are very concerned about growing Iranian power.
Judging from his actions so far a US/Iran war seems unlikely. There could be more Trump brinkmanship to get a better deal. Iran may wish to sound tough but it would be unwise to so test the President’s patience that a war was possible. We may face more incidents and many more harsh words in the meantime, as there is no sign of a deal. The European Union is urging talks and caution, and the Democrats in Congress both condemn Iran and sound concerned about war.
The above article was previously published by Charles Stanley on 18th June 2019