Events in the Gulf are unfolding so quickly and ominously that it’s impossible to keep up. They could easily spiral out of control. You might go to sleep at night to a region at peace and wake up the next morning to countries aflame.
In the midst of this swirl of events, it’s worth focusing on some of the more worrisome developments not receiving as much attention as they deserve.
Earlier this week, the NYT reported that Israel and the U.S. are dusting off old military plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and to launch cyber-attacks against it. John Bolton traveled to Israel for a joint summit with Israeli and Russian officials to discuss the security situation in Syria. Naturally one of the major focuses of the talks will be Iran’s role in that country.
He will also meet directly with Israeli military, intelligence and political leaders:
“[Bolton] will meet with the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and other officials who, during the Obama administration, repeatedly ordered practice bombings to simulate taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel stopped short of bombing but, a decade ago, joined the United States in conducting a sophisticated cyberattack against Iran’s major enrichment site.
As Iran vows to gradually kick its nuclear production back into gear, both options are being revisited, officials say, in case Iran carries through its declared nuclear plans.”
Bolton has already demanded that his own U.S. generals produce war plans to attack Iran. Incredibly, the Pentagon produced a plan that called for 120,000 troops to subdue a country bigger, wealthier and more powerful than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. So it’s natural that Bolton discusses joint U.S. and Israeli strikes against Iran. Though it’s important to note that both Presidents Bush and Obama rejected these options. They refused to attack Iran at Israel’s repeated urging.
Another factor not mentioned in the above report, is that in all the simulations which military planners designed, the type of attacks Bolton is considering all led to major regional conflagration, including damage to population centers in Iran and Israel, not to mention Saudi Arabia. In other words, a war game is not a game once the bullets and missiles fly. The best-laid plans in a simulation take on a life of their own and thousands of lives are lost, both civilian and military.
Drone Wars: Who Do You Believe?
One of the major bones of contention regarding Iran’s downing of the U.S. drone was where it was located when it was shot down. While the U.S. military and Secretary of State Pompeo have repeatedly claimed it was in international airspace, it has offered no clear evidence to support the claim. Iran, on the other hand, has offered the exact coordinates at which the UAV was intercepted clearly indicating it was within Iran’s airspace. The wreckage of the drone also fell in Iranian waters and was retrieved by Iran and displayed in Tehran.
The clearest indication that the U.S. is bluffing comes in this NY Times editorial:
The U.S. military “cannot say for certain whether or not the drone violated Iranian sovereignty, as officials in Tehran have claimed.”
Another Times report was even more direct, and skeptical:
… A senior Trump administration official said there was concern inside the United States government about whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, or even the P-8A manned aircraft flown by a military aircrew, actually did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Mr. Trump called off the strike.
In the absence of clear evidence from the Americans, it seems that Iran’s claims are more credible. If the U.S. knew its claim were correct it would surely rebut Iran with its own. As it hasn’t, they cannot be believed.
Besides, it’s very common in such conflict situations for both parties to test the opponent to determine his defensive capabilities. That’s why Russian planes continually approach U.S. and European airspace and are met by intercepting planes. This lets the Russians know that they’ve been detected and would be met with an aggressive response should they actually violate U.S. or European territorial sovereignty. No doubt, the U.S. Raptor drone was doing the same thing: entering Iranian airspace to detect how its air defenses would respond. This exercise would permit U.S. military strategists to anticipate how Iran’s air defenses would react in the event of a real conflict. So now they know that Iran is capable of downing one of America’s most sophisticated UAVs, not to mention what else it could do should it need to.
Trump’s Stand-Down: Humane or Cowardly?
The Trump administration has portrayed the president’s decision to stand down from the planned attack on Iran as an act of benevolence motivated by saving Iranian lives. It claims that Trump asked as he was making his final decision, how many Iranians would die as a result of the raid. When he heard that it would kill 150, he began to develop second thoughts. This paints the president as a decent humane individual, qualities he’s never shown either as president.
Far more likely, was the possibility that Maj. Gen. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Trump that this attack on Iran would likely envelop the region in tit-for-tat retaliation. Iran’s allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere would surely sharpen the knives and seek out suitable targets to avenge the attack. One of the highest priorities would be the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel, currently stationed throughout the Middle East. It would be open season on them. And one of the benefits of engaging in the type of asymmetrical warfare Iran does, is that it can pick and choose both targets and timing for its attack.
As if to burnish Trump’s warrior credentials after he demurred from attacking Iran, his administration announced that U.S. Cyber Command had attacked an IRG intelligence unit responsible for aggressive operations against U.S. and western targets. Even more significantly, it hacked an Iranian missile command and control site. As there has been no word on which unit was attacked and the scale of the damage, it’s hard to know the scope and success of the operation.
But lost in the discussion of the discussion is the chastening notion learned by way of Newtonian physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, while U.S. cyber capabilities are likely far superior to Iran’s, the latter is no slouch at playing this game. Undoubtedly, their hackers have targets of their own they have in their sites. But unlike the U.S., which operates under a certain level of restraint as a major international power, Iran faces no such restraint. Its only consideration is how far they feel they can go in provoking the U.S. tiger before he bites.
Further, the U.S., as the richest and most powerful country in the world, presents far more targets of opportunity than Iran does. We are sitting ducks with even the strongest level of defense any nation could muster against this sort of attack. And make no mistake, Iran will not sick back and absorb such blows with equanimity. It will strike when it feels the moment is right.
U.S. Iran Policy: No ‘There’ There
As many analysts and journalists have reported in the past few weeks regarding U.S. policy toward Iran: there is no “there” there. In other words, the Trump administration has no strategy in place. Its only consideration is the vaguely defined goal, “no nukes.” Given that Iran does not have WMD and just signed a 2015 agreement not to develop them for the next fifteen years, Trump’s goal strikes most of the world as bizarre, if not preposterous.
The only policy tool in Trump’s quiver seems to be sanctions. The U.S. has laid siege to the Iranian economy and is prepared, like a boa constrictor, to slowly squeeze the life out of not only the economy, but the people themselves.
There is only so far we can go before the Iranians strike back, telling the world that if they are to starve to death they will not do so alone. Rather, they will take as much of the world with them, a la Samson, as they can. That might explain the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf (if Iran is the party responsible for them, which has not yet been proven).
Trump harbors the odd illusion that if he punishes Iran enough, the Ayatollahs will scream the Farsi equivalent of “Uncle!” and agree to meet him at the negotiating table. There, Trump will forge an agreement that will somehow be far better than the one conceived and signed by Pres. Obama.
Trump has never stated how his proposed agreement would be different. Presumably, it would guarantee Iran would never develop nuclear weapons, as opposed to the earlier deal which took WMD off the table for fifteen years. If the U.S. president could secure such an agreement, it would indeed be an achievement denied Obama.
But what would Trump offer Iran in return? Because surely it would demand a great deal in return. Unfortunately, given the particulars of the Kushner “Deal of the Century,” the offerings to Iran would be less than appealing. $50-billion, what they’re offering the Palestinians to buy their acquiescence in their own disenfranchisement, would be peanuts to Iran. It would be met with derision in Tehran.
The only credible deal would offer Iran full and immediate restoration of commercial, economic and diplomatic ties; plus an end to sanctions and the unfreezing of its assets wherever they are held in the world. No one in their right mind thinks Trump would agree to such a deal. Remember what happened during his last summit with Kim Jong Un? The Korean leader demanded the same provisions in return for relinquishing his nuclear program. Trump walked. He would do the same with the Iranians.
Israel Maintains Radio SIlence
In the midst of the current escalating crisis Israel, a mortal enemy of Iran, has maintained complete silence. This is all the more remarkable as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a political career of demonizing Iran. Now, all of a sudden, when he seems within arms reach of the very outcome he’s sought for years, he remains silent. No threats. No dog and pony shows for world media featuring display cases filled with captured Iranian CDs. No thundering denunciations before the UN General Assembly.
Why? Well, perhaps it is precisely because Netanyahu stands so close to his goal of attacking Iran and toppling the regime, that he must not upset the apple cart. Also, no doubt U.S. officials are reminding him that he is not exactly beloved in the Arab world; and that anything he might say could and would be used to sabotage military action against Iran.
This parallels the first Iraq war, when Saddam rained SCUDs on Tel Aviv. Pres. Bush did not want to jeopardize the international coalition he’d amassed to fight the Iraqi dictator, which included many Arab countries. So he asked Israel not to respond to the attacks and to stand apart from other nations in the region who joined the coalition of the willing. It did so and Bush’s coalition invaded Iraq and successfully forced its withdrawal from Kuwait. No doubt Netanyahu awaits with bated breath a similar outcome.