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Why Iran Could Be The Next War In The Middle East

It all depends on how Trump responds to Iran’s missile test.

02/02/2017 12:10 AM IST | Updated 03/02/2017 8:48 AM IST
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While people have been up in arms about the so-called Muslim ban, another crisis has been silently brewing. Now, with the missile test carried out by Iran it remains to be seen if tensions will escalate between the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other. The missile test was preceded by an attack on a Saudi warship off the coast of Yemen by the Houthi rebels who are perceived by the US-led "alliance of the righteous" as backed by Iran. Perhaps the missile tests were a pre-emptive response to Operation Unified Trident which began on the 31st of January in the Persian Gulf with a simulation being carried out jointly by the US, UK, French and Australian navies.

So far, geo-strategic interests and self-interest have largely driven American policies. However... a group that mirrors the hardliners in Tehran is now in power in Washington.

No sooner had the missile been tested that Netanyahu leapt at an opportunity to invite Trump to not let the test go unanswered. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the United Nations has emphatically stated that the world should be "alarmed" by the test. She reassuringly added, "The United States is not naïve...You will see us call them out as we said we would and you are also going to see us act accordingly." The very fact that she has to say the United States is not naïve goes to show what spring chickens the current lot are, particularly when it comes to international diplomacy. Of course, it doesn't help matters that by now thousands of seasoned US diplomats have signed the infamous dissent cable and Trump's reaction has been to show them the door.

Anyone who has had experience dealing and negotiating with the Iranians knows that they run circles around their diplomatic counterparts. I have met more than one senior Indian Foreign Service officer who has stated that the toughest diplomats they had to negotiate with were their Iranian counterparts. Thus, the current "escalation" should not be viewed as merely bellicose posturing but rather as a shrewd and calculated decision through which to draw out the Americans. For what it's worth, technically speaking, there was no agreement to not test missiles but this was something that was an unspoken expectation. However, as we already know, Trump is not someone who reads the fine print and so through this act, the Iranians are calling his bluff because he had stated that the nuclear deal was the "worst" deal ever negotiated and that he would tear it up. Before this happens Iran has tried to elicit a reaction in order to see if the current American regime is indeed serious in honouring its predecessor's deal. If not, then the hardliners in Iran will turn around and say "I told you so" to the reformists as well as to Iranians, many of whom have had a long distrust of America's intentions. Of course, it only helps their case that that Iranians have been banned from entering the United States, thus cutting off one way of sustaining dialogue.

Resolution H.J.Res.10... is essentially asking for congressional approval for legal sanction to pre-emptively strike Iran. [T]he magnitude of the force used is left up to the discretion, or lack thereof, of the President.

If Trump does decide to do something about the missile test or decides to respond to the Iranian provocation, then one of the legal weapons in his arsenal is a little-known bill that has been circulating in the Congress for some time. This resolution was submitted to the House of Representatives on the 3rd of January 2017. Resolution H.J.Res.10 was referred to the committee on Foreign Affairs and proposes that "the President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines necessary and appropriate in order to achieve the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons." In other words, this bill is essentially asking for congressional approval for legal sanction in order to pre-emptively strike Iran. Indeed, as is clear from the wording of the resolution the most worrying aspect is that the magnitude of the force used is left up to the discretion, or lack thereof, of the President.

Now, of course, tensions between Iran and the United States are nothing new and there have been periodic crises that have thankfully been prevented from escalating by a series of back channels and diplomacy. However, in this, like with many other things, Trump and his team have really shaken up Washington. Unlike previous Republican administrations and their advisors, the current dispensation is less concerned with realpolitik and seems to be more concerned with realising their political and ideological goals. This is precisely why the current days and months promise to be full of tension as we potentially teeter on the edge of the next regional war which of course has the potential to very quickly go beyond the confines of the larger Middle East.

It is in the interest of the Israelis and the Saudis to try and encourage an escalation or indeed a military confrontation between Iran and the US.

Despite their rhetoric, the Iranians have always been driven by a self-serving pragmatism and a concern of winning the war of attrition they entered into with the United States shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Since then a group of people have come to occupy a prominent political position within Iran who have a vested ideological and pragmatic interest in perpetuating and indeed amplifying what they see as a perennial enmity with the United States. So far, geo-strategic interests and self-interest have largely driven American policies. However, with Trump's incoming team, this will be radically different because a group that mirrors the hardliners in Tehran is now in power in Washington.

For some time now Trump as well as key members of his team, such as General Michael Flynn, have advocated a military engagement with Iran. Indeed, in his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, Flynn has argued that the US invasion of Baghdad was a mistake and that Tehran should have been the target because the latter is part of the "evil alliance" of radical Islam. Flynn's will not be a lone voice in the White House because his colleagues like Steve Bannon have a similar ideologically driven view of the world. For all the focus on how Trump is impulsive and unpredictable, it is worth remembering that the people, who surround him, have a particularly binary and myopic view of the world. For them, it is not a black and white world but simply a white world with no room for any other worldview.

Given the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq it seems the only logical thing left to do is to invade yet another country.

It is of course in the interest of the Israelis and the Saudis to try and encourage an escalation or indeed a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. Netanyahu often tries to use word play to conflate the Islamic State with the Islamic Republic while trying to gloss over the inconvenient fact that both these groups are mortal enemies because of their sectarian affiliation. The Saudis, on the other hand, blame the increased sectarianism in the Middle East on Iran while failing to even acknowledge the role some Saudi actors have played in funding and sustaining militarised extremists. All in all, both the Israelis and the Saudis have struck gold with Flynn and Bannon.

In his book, Flynn writes of Iran as the "lynchpin" of the "evil alliance" and goes so far as to say that:

"I firmly believe that Radical Islam is a tribal cult and must be crushed. Critics get buried in the details of sunna, hadiths, the umma and the musings of countless Muslim clerics and imams. These so-called Islamic scholars keep their message so complicated so as to create chaos, to confuse in order to control. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Mussolini were more transparent. Sharia is a violent law that is buried in barbaric convictions."

Of course "Radical Islam", at least in the way it is described above, is actually Islam in its entirety and the current ban only reflects and emphasises this view. Meanwhile, Bannon too articulated his anxiety about the world being engulfed in a crisis at the Vatican a few years ago. In particular, he spoke about the need for a return to an age where Judeo-Christian values drove peaceful capitalism (and colonialism but let's not mention that). Bannon advocates "a very, very, very aggressive stance against Radical Islam." Now on the face of it, this is not a statement that anyone would disagree with. However, as we see from Flynn's description of Radical Islam, the only non-radical Muslims are those who completely dissociate themselves from the traditions and structures of their religion. Indeed, it is short-sighted of the Saudis to play the sectarian card against Iran because ultimately, when the oil runs out, the sights will also be turned on them but, with things as they are, who knows how much the map will be redrawn by then. Given the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems the only logical thing left to do is to invade yet another country. What remains to be seen is whether "regime change" will be achieved through giving military aid to "opposition groups" or by putting boots on the ground.

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