As far as is known, neither side wants a war, but a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations could still lead to a confrontation. This analysis, which has an all-too-familiar ring from recent rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, as well as the balance of deterrence that has existed for years between Israel and Hezbollah, refers this time to a different front: the one between the United States and Iran. That’s the conclusion reached by David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, in a piece Thursday.
This assessment followed the dramatic rise in tensions in the Persian Gulf in the past several days: the claims of Iran’s plans to attack targets of the United States or its allies in the Middle East, the U.S. warnings to Iran, the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to the region, and Tehran’s announcement that it would withdraw from parts of the nuclear agreement.
According to Ignatius, who has excellent relations with U.S. defense officials, the intelligence community in Washington changed its assessment regarding Iran’s intentions some two weeks ago. Until then, the Americans believed the Iranians would try to ride out the economic and political pressure from Washington to remain within the nuclear deal (which the Trump administration pulled out of a year ago), and to wait out the next 20 months in the hope that President Donald Trump would lose his reelection bid.
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As Ignatius sees it, “the United States concluded that the Iranians had decided to reset their strategy,” either because the U.S. sanctions are biting too hard or because the Iranians “concluded that Trump might be reelected.” In addition to Iran’s doubts about the continued implementation of the nuclear agreement, the Americans receive intelligence about plans for imminent attacks on U.S. targets in the region, either by Iranian forces or their proxies (such as Shi’ite militias in Iraq or Houthi rebel forces in Yemen).
Ignatius mentioned the possibility of attacks on the more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Other assessments, reported by Israel’s Channel 13 News, hold that Israel passed along intelligence warnings of Iranian plans to attack installations linked to Saudi Arabia’s petroleum trade, in an indirect act of revenge for the U.S. cancellation of exemptions for eight countries that continued to buy oil from Iran. The Houthis, for their part, fired missiles at a tanker carrying crude oil from Saudi Arabia to Egypt through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait last July.
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Late last week, the U.S. Maritime Administration warned that Iran could target U.S. commercial ships, including oil tankers, as well as “U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf.”
In addition to deploying the aircraft carrier, which according to some reports had been planned in advance, the U.S. announced a new deployment of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles in the region and sent a few B-52 bombers to a U.S. base in Qatar. These moves are not that dramatic because the deployments are limited, but the way the administration announced them and the extensive media coverage they received made them seem like saber-rattling.
That raises the questions of whether the Americans are following a written script, and what they hope to accomplish. Does Trump, who is not keen to launch new wars in the Middle East, seek to return the Iranians to the bargaining table, in a bid to reach a new nuclear agreement more favorable to the United States than the one signed by the Obama administration in Vienna in 2015? Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized that one as a “disaster.” (CNN reported Saturday that the White House gave Trump’s private phone number to Iran, via Switzerland.)
Or do the hawks in the administration, who include John Bolton, the national security adviser, want to go to war against Iran in order to achieve regime change there?
There are plenty of historical examples of governments and intelligence agencies manipulating raw intelligence. The most traumatic of these for Americans in the past few decades came in 2002 when the administration of President George W. Bush claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, shortly before invading the country and bringing down the regime of Saddam Hussein.
For now, Israel is not at the center of the front between the United States and Iran. If such a military confrontation does happen, which currently seems unlikely, it will have indirect implications for Israel. That is presumably the reason that nearly every conversation with a high-ranking military official in recent weeks began with the situation in the Gaza Strip but quickly jumped to the events in the Gulf. Iran could go on to use other arenas closer to Israel – Gaza, Lebanon, Syria – as diversions or to damage the interests of Washington and its allies in the region. That may have figured into the calculus behind last week’s decision to end the round of fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad quickly, despite the deaths of four Israelis and the firing of 700 rockets into southern Israel.