By Edward Carney
On Thursday, the New York Times published an article summarizing “how the US is reacting to what it sees as a threat from Iran.” That reaction began in earnest the previous week, when White House National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that a US Navy aircraft carrier group would be deployed earlier than expected to the Persian Gulf, for the purpose of deterring Iranian threats. Bolton also announced that a bomber task force would be deployed to the region, and he noted that these moves were being made in response to credible intelligence regarding apparent preparations by Iranian forces and regional proxies upon US assets and allies, both on land and at sea.
Since that announcement, details of the relevant intelligence have gradually trickled out through the media. This was reflected in the Times report, which cited American officials as saying that satellite images showed the Iranians loading military equipment and missiles onto small naval vessels belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This hardline paramilitary has a long history of smuggling weapons to militant groups such as the Houthis in Yemen and the allies of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the unusually visible transfers in recent weeks raised concerns about the possibility that those weapons might be deployed in Persian Gulf waters by the IRGC itself, or transferred in higher quantities to regional proxies in preparation for attacks on US forces.
What’s more, Business Insider reported that subsequent intelligence has pointed to the probable targeting of US troops in Iraq, as well as commercial shipping vessels and energy infrastructure. These threats became uniquely real on Sunday when four tankers, including two belonging to the United Arab Emirates, were damaged by explosions believed to originate with aquatic drones. Then, on Tuesday, an aerial drone attack was carried out on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Both incidents have been tentatively connected to Iran, thereby corroborating the recently-cited intelligence and further justifying the American response.
In addition to deploying a carrier group and bombers, the White House has reportedly reviewed plans for the deployment of 120,000 military personnel. When asked about this, President Donald Trump suggested that American media had inaccurately reported upon issues relating to Iran. While he insisted that he has no intention to initiate military conflict, he also said that if a military deployment was made necessary by Iranian action, it would be considerably larger than the 120,000-person figure. When asked directly whether the US and Iran were on a path to war, the president responded, “I hope not.”
As well as alleging inaccurate reporting on the current tensions, Trump suggested that the Iranian regime was consequently confused about what to expect. But this is a “good thing,” he said on Friday according to Agence Prance-Presse. The apparent implication was that by virtue of not knowing what to think, Tehran might be inclined to set policy according to its worst expectations. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear what that might mean, especially in view of the regime’s track record of foreign provocations.
On Thursday, Reuters quoted Garret Marquis, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, as saying that “Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence.” This, he warned, could necessitate the US acting to “protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region,” although the purpose of American military deployments so far has been to send a message to Iran underscoring the consequences of further provocation. American officials have been consistent about counterbalancing a commitment to such deterrence with a commitment to avoiding the instigation of military conflict.
The same cannot be said of the Iranians. This fact was highlighted by Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in an interview with CNN on Friday. “Iran’s responses on many issues are contradictory and this is part and parcel, I think, of the trust factor that affects Iranian politics,” he said in response to a question about Iran’s efforts to deny responsibility for the oil tanker sabotage incidents near the UAE’s coast. “I can come up with five, six statements that contradict each other coming out of Iran,” he added. “I can see that very, very clearly.”
This pattern of contradiction has been on display in the responses of Iranian political and military figures to the escalating tensions and the American efforts to pursue a strategy of maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on the Iranian regime. The Washington Post released video on Thursday of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in conference with Japanese officials, insisting that Tehran regards American “escalation” as “unacceptable.” Despite this, Zarif said, Iran has shown “maximum restraint.”
But of course such claims stand in stark contrast to the Iranian missile transfers and other suspicious behaviors that set the stage for much of that “escalation.” And more to the point, Zarif’s commentary is contradicted by virtually simultaneous statements from other figures who appear ready to acknowledge the accuracy of the aforementioned American intelligence.
Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, recently said in no uncertain terms that Iran-backed militias in Iraq should “prepare for proxy war.” According to Fox News, a senior intelligence official said that this “wasn’t far off” from a “call to arms.” Meanwhile, the same could be said of responses to US deterrence from some of the proxy groups over which Suleimani has control. The Associated Press identified some of these groups on Friday in a report that said “Iran could rally regional proxies in case of war.” The report also credited Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, as saying that in a conflict scenario, “Iran will not be alone.”
Zarif’s assertion for “maximum restraint” was further undermined on Friday when Iran’s Fars News Agency quoted Mohammad Saleh Jokar, the IRGC’s deputy head of parliamentary affairs, as boasting about the ability of Iranian missiles to strike US Navy ships that have lately arrived in the Persian Gulf. According to the New York Post, Jokar also declared that “America cannot afford the costs of a new war, and the country is in a bad situation in terms of manpower and social conditions.”
The same reporte noted that these remarks closely coincided with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once again expressing his regime’s commitment to avoiding all negotiations concerning an agreement to restrain malign activities, unless the US first withdraws all existing pressures. But despite Tehran’s apparent willingness to court conflict, Business Insider noted that two American destroyers had entered the Persian Gulf without incident on Thursday. In fact, one US defense official was quoted as saying, “It was the quietest transit we have seen in a long time,” being absent any confrontational maneuvers by the small IRGC vessels that are at the heart of some of the most recent intelligence warnings.
This arguable speaks to the tentative success of American pressures, in the sense that they may have compelled Iran to restrain some of its familiar activities even in the wake of a recent outpouring of plots and provocations. Yet this is not to say that the US or its allies are likely to let their guard down. Indeed, just one day before the destroyers’ arrival, non-essential American personnel were withdrawn from the US embassy in Baghdad and the US consulate in Erbil, in response to the latest threats from Iran’s militant proxies.
In a surprise meeting with Iraqi officials the previous week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that some such groups had apparently moved missile installations closer to American bases. An Iraqi military source was quoted by Fox News as saying that Pompeo had clearly communicated the expectation of “guarantees that Iraq would stop those groups threatening US interests.”
But as well as taking precautions against further such threats, the US also proactively deployed a Patriot anti-missile battery to the region, according to the Associated Press. The same Iraqi military source noted of the visiting Americans, “They said if the U.S. were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.”
In avoiding harassment of American vessels, the IRGC and the Iranian regime may hope to minimize the likelihood of such proactive responses close to home, while also focusing attention upon areas of foreign influence for the sake of plausible deniability, and in line with Tehran’s preference for asymmetrical warfare tactics. Along these same lines, the regime may expect its own restraint in certain areas to cast doubt upon allegations that Iranian forces are behind the tanker explosions, pipeline attack, and other incidents.
But the latest reporting suggests that even if this is Iran’s intention, it is not generally being taken seriously. An editorial by US military veteran and defense expert Brett Velicovich stated on Friday that the specified attacks “have Iran’s fingerprints all over them.” Two days earlier, the AP reported that Saudi Arabia had been quick to blame Iran for providing the drone technology and logistical support necessary for carrying out the pipeline attacks that had been claimed by the Houthi. That same report quoted Ali Shihabi of the Arabia Foundation as saying that if Iran is allowed to get away with such activities, “the whole security infrastructure in the Gulf will be called into question.”
Finally, Reuters published a report on Friday which explained that an oil tanker insurer, Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association, had completed an assessment and determined that the IRGC was most likely to blame for the explosions off the UAE coast. This determination derived from a number of factors, including known information about Iranian military technology and the alignment between such attacks and Iran’s strategic objectives.
According to the report, one possible objective for Iranian attacks on foreign tankers is to send a message regarding the possibility of interrupting non-Iranian oil trade without closing off the Strait of Hormuz, as Iranians have threatened to do countless times in recent months. In this sense, the regimes latest tactical moves can be said to represent a withdrawal in one area, but an escalation in another.