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President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House advisors, and senior military personnel, delivers remarks from Cross Hall at the White House, January 8, 2020. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

What is Going On Between Iran and the United States?

A situation someplace between shadowboxing and Guns of August. On the one hand, the Secretary of State, aided and abetted by the Secretary Defense, beats furiously on the war drums. Israel’s apparently indestructible Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raises the specter of an imminent attack by Lebanese Hezbollah and strikes at real or imagined Iranian targets in Syria. Yet, bizarrely, the New York Times reports that Israel has warned Hezbollah of upcoming attacks in order to avoid causing casualties.[1] Iranian and American naval forces accuse one another of provocative and threatening actions that violate the Law of the Sea and/or navigational practices. President Trump intervened, momentarily, to announce that he has ordered the US Navy to “shoot down” (apparently airborne) Iranian patrol boats. Iran issues statements varying from bellicose to patronizing. Rockets apparently launched by Iranian-allied (or “–controlled” depending on the viewpoint) strike American facilities, inflicting some casualties – yet without repercussions. The US has upped the ante on “maximum pressure” by blocking humanitarian aid to Iran. Washington has also told Iraq it will only extend the waiver on importing electricity and gas from Iran for another 30 days, putting Iraq between the rock of a nationwide power blackout and the hard place of catastrophic American sanctions. Although its economy appears in near free-fall, Tehran has not appreciably lessened its support for its allies (or proxies) in Yemen or Lebanon.

Iran Continues to Project Power

All this takes place against a backdrop of two unprecedented worldwide catastrophes that, working in tandem, have undermined the economies of the world, and especially those of the Gulf region. A downward slide in oil prices, triggered initially by American shale oil production, took a first-ever nosedive into negative prices, i.e., oil traders actually paid customers to take their crude oil into storage, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the globalized world to a screeching halt. Iran has suffered from these two catastrophes more than most. Iran did not want to shut down travel with China, its only major international friend. To compound the problem, the clerical leadership refused to close mosques and pilgrimage sites and allowed some of the clerics to hawk fantastical cures for the virus before getting a grip. Not surprisingly, Iran has suffered more cases and deaths than any other country in the region except, possibly, Turkey. Given terrible statistics emanating from both countries, no one really knows. Yet, Iran appears ostensibly unfazed by American pressure, the pandemic, and its collapsing economy. It continues to support its allies (or proxies) abroad with no little success. Iranian material support, combined with Houthi military prowess and the pandemic, appears to have pushed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to cry “uncle” and seek to extricate the Kingdom from its ill-fated intervention in Yemen. As noted, President Trump has issued threats but has not followed up on any of them despite the loss of American lives in Iraq. It also appears that the assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, Qasem Soleimani, perversely has strengthened the hand of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) inside Iran. Signals from Washington also confuse. While the administration hourly predicts the Iranian regime will be brought to its knees at the negotiating table, it continues to rattle its swords daring Iran to start hostilities.

This may be play-acting as both sides jockey for power. President Trump has made it clear he does not want an armed confrontation with Iran. He certainly would not risk a war that would probably lead to significant American casualties in the midst of a pandemic of Biblical proportions that already threatens his reelection. He has singularly failed to convey this to the Iranian leadership, which appears convinced that the US is itching for a fight having failed to bring down the Iranian regime by non-violent means. The Iranians, in turn, appear to believe that they can “play chicken” just as well as the Americans.

COVID19 Complicates the Issues

The pandemic cum oil price collapse double-whammy has also altered the power factors affecting the competitive dynamics between the two countries. COVID-19 has already sidelined the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and at least one guided-missile destroyer, the USS Kidd, removing one of four carrier battle groups available for a confrontation with Iran. For strategic pundits’ consideration, the newest US carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford is not yet fully operational and at any one time the US Navy is likely to have two Nimitz carriers in major refit, others in for maintenance and perhaps three actually at sea.[2] Iran has suffered more from the virus than its neighbors hosting US bases but all are in various forms of lockdown. Iran has also demonstrated that despite sanctions it possesses indigenously-developed weapons systems that can cause significant casualties to American naval forces in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea as well as its more vulnerable air and ground bases in Iraq and the GCC.[3] Saudi Arabia’s decision to hand victory to the Houthis in Yemen burnishes Iran’s credentials as a capable ally to its many friends and proxies in the region. At the same time, the worldwide oil glut has robbed Iran of its principal deterrent threat, the ability to shut down the Persian Gulf to oil exports. In fact, the Economist allowed its readers to infer, perhaps tongue in cheek, that Donald Trump stoked tensions with Iran to push up oil prices.[4] War could torpedo any hope that Iran can rescue the country’s plummeting standard of living.

If Only This Were a Rational World

In any rational world, neither Washington nor Tehran would under these dire circumstances seek to provoke the other into war. Yet, that seems to be what they are doing. One might speculate that the IRGC has seized upon the pandemic as a means to grab power and displace even the verisimilitude of representative government the country has today. Supreme Leader Khamenei appears to have given the IRGC at least an amber light in this effort, perhaps because he believes that he can no longer control discontent through the usual channels. The IRGC may also want to stir up a confrontation with the US in order to rally nationalist sentiment and quell domestic dissent. In this scenario, Iran would orchestrate a careful minute, publicly challenging the Great Satan just short of hostilities. The American willingness to play this game perplexes, however. The US has, as noted, tried hard to prevent any pandemic relief to Iran, over and above conventional economic sanctions. Secretary Pompeo never hesitates to pour oil on the rhetorical fires. The US often appears trapped by an atavistic desire to avenge the embassy hostage drama of forty years ago. We have rebuffed numerous attempts by Iran to get on our good side whether by offering cooperation during the War on Drugs or supporting our invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. At the risk of playing amateur psychologist, one should note that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lived through the Iran hostage crisis as an impressionable teenager and then went on to the US Military Academy and a brief stint as an armor officer in Germany. Pompeo’s life in the military occurred during a particularly tense time in US-Iran relations including the Gulf Tanker War and the destruction of the Marine Barracks in Beirut blamed on Iranian proxies. Brief clashes between American and Iranian allies or directly always ended short of full-scale war. One wonders if the fact that Pompeo never saw combat only sharpened his desire to give the ayatollahs a bloody nose.

 

Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

 

References:

[1] Ben Hubbard and Ronen Bergman, “Warning Shots: Israel Spares Hezbollah Fighters to Avert a War,” The New York Times, April 22, 2020

[2] Paul Rogers, “Is US and Iranian military posturing meant to distract from COVID-19 failure?,” Open Democracy, March 19, 2020

[3] Zachary Keck, “5 Iranian Weapons of War America Should Fear,” The National Interest,  January 23, 2015

[4] “Business this week,” The Economist, April 23 Edition

 

Ambassador Theros has held such positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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