The Middle East is holding its breath, trying to work out from the series of briefings and decisions coming out of Washington whether an axis led by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to take the United States into a war with Iran. And if so, will President Donald Trump — who for years has been against further U.S. military involvement in the region — rein them in?
The signals so far are conflicting. The deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf last week was depicted as an escalation, though it was probably scheduled months in advance. Then there was the arrival of four U.S. B-52 bombers in Qatar along with other combat aircraft, plus a report in Tuesday’s New York Times of war plans, including the possible activation of as many as 120,000 troops, being reviewed by the White House.
But while no one is clear what any of this means, the region isn’t waiting. In the space of three days, there was the reported sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and new reports of a long-range drone attack, carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, which caused enough damage to Saudi oil pipelines to force their temporary shutdown.
War may not break out between the United States and Iran, but there’s already some kind of conflict going on.
If things escalate, the frontline won’t be just a direct military confrontation between the two countries. Iran has no illusions that its army, equipped with antiquated weapons, has any prospect of standing up to the superpower, not head-on. But that isn’t how Iran is preparing for a potential showdown.
The Strait of Hormuz, through which about 40 percent of the world’s crude oil is shipped, and the Yemen-Saudi war are but two of the frontlines in which Iran can choose to challenge the United States and its allies.
Other potential flashpoints are in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and as far afield as Latin America, where Iran’s intelligence agencies and Hezbollah have had a presence for decades.
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The Trump administration isn’t just taking on Iran right now. It is currently engaged in saber-rattling with the Maduro regime in Venezuela; in a stand-off with North Korea after the collapse of the Trump-Kim Jong Un negotiations; and, of course, on the brink of an all-out trade war with China.
Iran is much more focused on disrupting American plans and has been conducting its campaign in multiple arenas since the early 1980s. Can the United States devote enough of its limited attention span, especially under a notoriously erratic leader like Trump, to beating back Iran?
This would have been a tall order even for a much better organized administration. Four years ago, the Obama administration invested a huge deal of its negotiating resources and political capital in negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran. While it achieved some success in the shape of an arms-control deal that limited Iran’s nuclear development in return for sanctions relief, the Americans under Obama largely deserted other fronts against Iran, allowing it to extend its reach in Iraq and partner with the Assad regime (and then the Russians) in drenching Syria with the blood of hundreds of thousands, all to keep the Syrian leader in power.
The “Iran deal first” strategy also played a part in the creation of the vacuum that allowed for the expansion of ISIS’ caliphate.
Trump withdrew from the Iran deal a year ago, but his team is essentially making a very similar mistake to Obama’s. By concentrating on a possible direct military confrontation with Iran, it is allowing itself to become distracted from the other places where Iran is advancing its agenda.
Just one stark example: As America is reinforcing its presence in the Gulf, back in Syria the last pocket of rebel resistance to the Assad regime is being pummeled by air and ground attacks, killing dozens of civilians daily. Instead of risking a full-scale war that would necessitate tremendous resources, jeopardize global energy supplies and almost certainly achieve nothing — certainly not regime change in Tehran — the United States could actually save lives, disrupt Iran’s regional plans and also push back Russian influence in the region by belatedly intervening in Syria and creating a no-fly zone over Idlib province.
Other concerted efforts to solve the ongoing crisis of Gaza or curb Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon would also challenge Iran, without resorting to war and would also enjoy the support of America’s allies.
As things currently stand, Iran is choosing the time and place to challenge America.