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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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Iran & Sanctions: A Prelude to War?

Iran: Sanctions & War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 29, 2018

 

The question is: has the Trump administration already made a decision to go to war with Iran, similar to the determination of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington?

 

Predictions are dicey things, and few human institutions are more uncertain than war. But several developments have come together to suggest that the rationale for using sanctions to force a re-negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is cover for an eventual military assault by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at regime change in Teheran.

 

As clueless as the Trump administration is on foreign policy, the people around the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—know that sanctions rarely produce results, and unilateral ones almost always fail.

 

Sanctions aimed at Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Libya did not dislodge any of those regimes and, in the case of North Korea, spurred Pyongyang into producing nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were eventually overthrown, but by American firepower, not sanctions.

 

The only case in which sanctions produced some results were those applied to Iran from 2010 to 2015. But that embargo was multi-lateral and included China, India, and one of Iran’s major customers, the European Union (EU). When the U.S. unilaterally applied sanctions to Cuba, Iran and Libya in 1996, the move was a conspicuous failure.

 

This time around, the White House has made no effort to involve other countries. The Trump plan is to use the power of the American economy to strong-arm nations into line. Back our sanctions, threatens the administration, or lose access to the US market. And given that the world uses the dollar as its de-facto international currency, financial institutions may find themselves barred from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), the American-controlled network that allows banks and finance centers to transfer money from country to county.

 

Those threats have not exactly panicked the rest of the world. China and India, which between them buy more than 1 million of Iran’s 2.1 million barrels per day production, say they will ignore the sanctions. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, “The European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and protect its economic investments.”

 

Adding up all the countries that will go along with the sanctions—including South Korea and Japan–will cut Teheran’s oil exports by 10% to 15%, nothing like the 50% plus that Iran lost under the prior sanctions regime.

 

In short, the sanctions won’t work, but were they really meant to?

 

It is possible that the White House somehow thinks they will—delusion is a characteristic of the Oval Office these days—but other developments suggest the administration is already putting in place a plan that will lead from economic sanctions to bombing runs.

 

For starters, there is the close coordination between the White House and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 speech shortly before Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement was tailored to give Washington a casus belli to dump the agreement. Virtually all of what Netanyahu “revealed” about the Iranian nuclear program was old news, already known by US, Israeli and European intelligence services.

 

Four days before Netanyahu’s speech Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his American counterparts and, according to Al Monitor, got a “green light” for any military action Tel Aviv might take against Iran.

 

The same day Liberman was meeting with the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia to end its campaign against Qatar because the Americans wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be united around a campaign against Iran.

 

Each of these moves seems calculated to set the stage for a direct confrontation with Iran involving some combination of the US, Israel and the two most aggressive members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter two are currently waging war on the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.

 

It is almost impossible to imagine what the consequences of such a war might be. On paper, it looks like a cakewalk for the anti-Teheran axis. Iran has an antiquated air force, a bunch of fast speedboats and tanks that date back to the 1960s. The military budgets of the US, Israel and the GCC are more than 58 times those of Iran. But, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once remarked, the only thing one can determine in war is who fires the first shot.

 

Military might does not translate into an automatic win. After almost 17 years of war, the US is still bogged down in Afghanistan, and it basically left Iraq with its tail between its legs. Indeed, the last time the American military won a war was in Grenada. As for the GCC, in spite of more than two years of relentless warfare in Yemen, the monarchs are no nearer victory than they were when the war started. And Hezbollah fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.

 

While Iran does not have much in the way of military force, it has 80 million people with a strong streak of nationalism who would certainly unite against any attacker. It would be impossible to “win” a war against Iran without resorting to a ground invasion.

 

But none of Iran’s antagonists have the capacity to carry that out. The Saudis have a dismal military record, and the UAE troops are stalemated in their campaign to take Yemen’s capital, Saana from the rag-tag Houthi militia. The Israelis don’t have the troops—and, in any case, would never put them in harm’s way so far from home—and the Americans are not about to send in the Marines.

 

Most likely this would be a war of aircraft and missiles to destroy Iran’s military and civilian infrastructure. There is little that Teheran can do to stop such an assault. Any planes it put up would be toast, its anti-aircraft weapons are obsolete, and its navy would not last long.

 

But flattening Teheran’s military is not winning a war, and Iran has other ways to strike back. The Iranians, for instance, have shown considerable skill at asymmetric warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it does have missiles.

 

The real damage, however, will be the fallout from the war. The price of oil is already on the rise, and hostilities in the middle of one of the world’s largest petroleum repositories will likely send it through the roof. While that will be good for the GCC, high oil prices will put a dent into the economies of the EU, China, India, and even the US.

 

What a war will almost certainly do is re-ignite Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon. If that happens, Saudi Arabia will follow, and the world will be faced with several new nuclear powers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

 

Which doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

 

The Trump administration hawks broke the JCPOA because they hoped Iran would then withdraw as well, giving the anti-Iranian axis an excuse to launch a war. Iranians are divided on this issue, with some demanding that Teheran re-start its uranium enrichment program, while others defend the agreement. Europe can play a key role here by firmly supporting the Joint Agreement and resisting the American sanctions, even if it means taking a financial hit. Some European firms, however, have already announced they are withdrawing their investments.

 

The US Congress can also help stop a war, although it will require members—mostly Democrats—to put aside their anti-Iranian bias and make common cause with the “stay in the pact” Iranians. This is a popular issue. A CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the agreement.

 

It will also mean that the Congress—again, mainly Democrats—will have to challenge the role that Israel is playing. That will not be easy, but maybe not as difficult as it has been in the past. Israel’s brutality against Palestinians over the past month has won no friends except in the White House and the evangelical circuit, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he prefers Republicans to Democrats.

 

Lastly, Congress should cut the arms pipeline to the GCC and stop aiding the Saudis in their war on Yemen

 

If war comes, Americans will find themselves in the middle of an unwinnable conflict that will destabilize the Middle East and the world’s economy, and pour more of this country’s resources into yet another quagmire.

 

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