The warning lights are flashing more brightly than ever. There are growing signs that there could be escalation at the edge - provocative attacks by pro-Iranian Shia forces operating in the Wild West of Iraq. How will America handle this form of escalation with Iran?
Will a direct, premeditated attack on U.S. troops by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria draw the United States into a conflict at the core: a major, all-out U.S. war against Iran?
It’s becoming more conceivable by the day. Indeed, there's potentially a lot more than just good old-fashioned "gunboat diplomacy" and deterrence-posturing going on when it comes to recent, very loud and very visible moves by the Trump administration, which this week cited intelligence pointing to a threat to U.S. forces from Iranian proxies.
National Security Advisor John Bolton raised the alarm last week and announced the rapid deployment of both a U.S. carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the region. "The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces," he stated.
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced trip to Iraq the day after Bolton's statement, declaring: "There's escalation that may be taking place, and so we're taking all the appropriate actions, both from a security perspective, as well as [to ensure]...the president has a wide range of options in the event that something should actually take place."
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- Trump Imposes Fresh Sanctions on Iran, Threatens Further Action
Here's what behind war drums: The U.S. is muscularly tightening the screws with effective oil sanctions against Tehran, and, if Iran’s oil lifeline is all but cut off amid an already atrophying economy, the regime could strike back: with a first strike at scattered U.S. forces on the ground in Iran-dominated Iraq.
Were it to transpire, make no mistake, this would be a very big war, one that could rapidly escalate into a conflict that would unfold in a much more violent and costly way than the two Gulf Wars involving the United States and Iraq from previous decades.
Iran, with a population of some 80 million, has a very large military (including an estimated 550,000 active personnel), a growing armory of increasingly accurate land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, plus a scrappy navy that includes a contingent of hard-to-detect "midget" submarines.
Today the nation’s geopolitical sphere, indeed, its military reach, extends from Tehran, through Baghdad, into Damascus and terminates in Beirut: a highly strategic corridor all the way to the Mediterranean.
This strategic "crescent," or land-bridge, is something that the radical Iranian leadership has coveted for decades and has now achieved, via both boots on the ground and influence-by-other-means: influence that reaches deep into such remote spots as Yemen, Venezuela and North Korea.
And just a week ago, Iran's proxy in the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad, in coordination with Hamas, unleashed a targeted barrage of more than 600 rockets on Israel, in an effort to keep Israel's military focused on this threat from one direction while more significant preparatory operations to the east, in Syria and Iraq, were underway by Tehran's proxies there.
Under Putin, Russia has notably shown itself to be interested in reconstituting the geography of the former Soviet Union. In turn, Moscow has condoned the pursuit by the authoritarian Tehran regime of Iran’s own "historic" and, indeed, expansive sphere of influence. Russia, to be sure, has played at best an inconsistent role in urging restraint by its allies in Tehran, particularly when it comes to Israel’s heightened concerns of an encroaching Iranian missile threat.
The U.S. Congress, focused on what could well become all-engrossing fact-finding hearings on alleged misdeeds by President Donald Trump post-Mueller Report, must pause and turn its gaze to the real and immediate danger of escalation at the edge.
Complacency about "over there," now that the last ISIS enclave has been wiped off the map by U.S.-supported forces, is misplaced. The regional chessboard is now very much U.S. v Iran, and the first major moves in that square-off already are in motion.
In the past - despite Iranian proxies being responsible for seeding Iraqi battlefields and villages with IEDs that killed hundreds of U.S. military personnel during the Iraq War - the United States has largely avoided any direct "kinetic" conflict with Iran or its operatives in the field.
At this critical juncture, America's elected representatives in both chambers will need to soberly consider the nation's carefully worded 1973 War Powers Act.
A landmark piece of legislation rarely enforced, it strives to balance the power placed in Congress to declare war with the need for the Commander and Chief to have utmost flexibility in meeting the national security exigencies of the United States in confronting any real or imminent military conflict – conflicts that could have long and significant impact on the nation as a whole.
The War Powers Act, becoming law despite a veto by then-President Richard Nixon, provides that the U.S. president can send American troops into conflict overseas only by declaration of war by Congress, "statutory authorization" or in the event of a "national emergency created by attack upon the United Sates, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."
The recent designation by the Trump administration of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization theoretically gives the White House some legalistic air-cover to attack those IRGC units in Iraq and Syria without Congressional approval, or a declaration of war in the event of suspected or real hostile activities threatening U.S. or allied forces in the area.
Here’s the current equation, and it would be unsurprising to start seeing media reports of U.S. ground forces being reinforced in Iraq, following recent comments by President Trump about his desire to keep America's eyes on Iran in Iraq:
* Iran, feeling intense pressure from U.S.-imposed oil and economic sanctions, wants the U.S. out of its way in Iraq and Syria and will use plausible-deniability proxy militias to move history in its direction and to deter further attempts at strangulation-by-sanction;
* Russia is giving a yellow light to Tehran, or perhaps even a veiled green light, when it comes to Iran’s pressing its agenda on the regional battlefield, all the way up to Iran’s embedded positions along the Golan border with Israel.
* The U.S. president, with his stark anti-Iran views and policies, is supported by anti-Iran hawks, namely Bolton and Pompeo. Until recently, former Secretary of Defense and highly-decorated Marine General Jim Mattis was a voice of caution on aggressive moves toward Iran, but that voice, following his resignation, is no longer heard in the Trump White House. The same could be said about Trump's former NSC Advisor, H.R. McMaster.
* Israel is increasingly on edge as Iran becomes entrenched in Syria with advanced missile capability, and this on the heels of Tehran’s decade-long policy of supplying Hezbollah forces in Lebanon with tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel. The hardline Netanyahu government, recently re-elected, has made it explicit: it will not countenance Iran’s military presence in Syria. Rocket bombardment from Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip - meant to terrorize those Israelis living within range - seriously heightens the Israel v. Iran cross-border tensions.
The question then becomes: Will America, preoccupied with pregnant questions surrounding both Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump, be tested by opportunistic moves by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria in the near future?
There’s a good possibility of that coming to pass. At the least, the current security environment in the region has become, as analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington note, "increasingly fragile and dangerous."
The United States, traditionally slow to anger, must prepare for a potentially dire "trip wire" event, one aimed at American troops in Iraq and Syria, and at the hands of Shia militias controlled by Tehran. If that were to happen, at time when America has become exceedingly inwardly focused, the stakes will be very high. A more dramatic move by Tehran, such as blocking the strategic Straits of Hormuz to oil traffic, could also transpire…and then all bets are off.
With a president under siege at home (not unlike Nixon during Watergate and Vietnam) will Congress have the calm wisdom and unencumbered focus to deal with escalation at the edge? Will it duly exercise the checks-and-balances powers enshrined in the Constitution?
Recent votes on the National Emergency border wall and the Yemen conflagration reveal that a number of Republicans in the Senate are willing to stand up with a loud "No." When it comes to a major confrontation with Iran and its proxies, the stakes will be far higher.
As a nation, Americans collectively pull together at vital moments when American lives and treasure are at stake. No foreign adversary should doubt American resolve in responding to threats abroad, even during times of domestic uncertainty.
Warren Getler, based in Washington, D.C., writes on national security affairs. Previously he served as a New York-based financial reporter for The Wall Street Journal, as a London and Frankfurt correspondent of the International Herald Tribune, and as editor-at-large for Bloomberg in Washington