US-Iran tensions: Standing in front of Pandora’s box with itchy fingers

The recent events in the Middle East have increased tensions between the USA and Iran, but their backlash is being felt across the globe.

by Efthimios Tsiliopoulos*

A chart published by the ISW (last updated 8 January) shows that the latest crisis between the USA and Iran has gone through four phases of escalation, starting in May 2019 when Iran attacked international oil tankers. This crisis, however, was preceded by the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran in November of 2018.

Everyone is now wondering how this will unfold and how this chart will be amended over the next few days.

Analysts as far away as eastern Asia and Oceania see grave consequences if tensions escalate even further, as this would surely mean a closure of the Straits of Hormuz, the global major chokepoint for the oil shipping business. Most of the oil shipped through the Straits finds its way to refineries in SE Asia and Oceania, and although Europe may rely to a greater extent on Russia for its energy needs, and the USA may satisfy its own needs through fracking, the same cannot be said for the nations of SE Asia. For them their energy lifelines are likely to become very precarious, or at least much more expensive.

The escalation has also driven a wedge between the US and many of its European allies. The assassination of Soleimani shocked most western leaders and stunned public opinion, despite support from staunch US allies like the UK and Israel. Yet, no one, however, has any reason to be happy with the situation, except perhaps President Trump.

The, so far, weak response from Iran has shown it too was caught completely off guard by Trump’s impetuous action. The firing of missiles against US bases in Iraq proved to be a “dud”. No casualties, no destruction, and a loss of face. Initial boasts by Iranian officials to the contrary was at least embarrassing.

The downing of the Ukrainian 737 totally deflated the Iranian regime’s efforts to strike a bellicose stance, at least for now, and swayed the middle classes, who had rallied behind the regime, after Soleimani’s killing. Iran’s growing middle classes, which had come to the streets in protests against regime policies, saw the death of Soleimani as a personal affront to their national pride, from a power they have grown up to consider an enemy. Now the shooting down of the passenger jet by the Iranian air defences is once again pitting the middle classes against a regime that has shown nothing but disdain for human rights and the lives of its citizens.

It is very difficult to fathom why Trump chose such extreme action. The US administration has been reluctant to be specific when speaking of intelligence of planned imminent action to be orchestrated by Soleimani and his minions, while Trump has harped on the idea for retaliation for the US citizen killed in a rocket attack on 27 December. Yet he has failed to react in kind, in other places US citizens and servicemen have been killed.

From US media comes the story that VP Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo were most influential in pushing Trump towards this decision. However, we may very well never learn the actual rationale behind the decision. It’s also hard to think that the US could have anticipated exactly how an Iranian retaliation would unfold. To believe that Iran would not retaliate would be folly even for someone as haphazard and impetuous as Trump. Could Trump wager that no American would be killed in any retaliatory strike? Or, did he simply not care.

It is also difficult to ascertain what Iran had to gain by ratcheting up the ante through attacks on US bases in Iraq, as Trump has very often reiterated that he intends to pull the US out of the Middle East. The escalation in tension has seen more troops arrive in the Middle East. The attacks also did nothing to calm down the divides in Iraq, which have seen the Sunni population increasingly aggravated by Iran’s meddling in the country’s affairs and the unchecked activities of its proxy militias.

In any event, all this did happen, and although Trump’s driving reason may be rationalized as deterrence it is unlikely to have any long lasting effect. Tehran may be in shock, but regime change is unlikely, despite protests. The theocratic regime has withstood a whole host of setbacks for setbacks, including a nine year war with Iraq, with countless casualties. Furthermore the “decapitation” of al-Quds and the IRGC is not likely to lead to a degradation of effectiveness, since as has been shown well-organized structures are resilient in such circumstances. For example, the assassination of Heydrich, may have robbed the SS of a “prince”, but did not deter the application of the “Final Solution”, nor alter the effectiveness of the Waffen SS.

Obviously, neither side has anything to gain from an escalation to all-out violence, and one would like to believe that they understand this. This uncertainty of what may transpire can have a backlash of stabilizing the tension at a manageable level in what is known as the security-insecurity paradox. However both sides have other cards that they may play, albeit, on a more asymmetrical chessboard. Iran has proxies that may go on the offensive against the US and its allies, and both sides may choose to wage cyber warfare, which they have already employed in limited fashion. An escalation in cyber techniques would plunge the globe into uncharted waters, and may be far more disconcerting than is at presently envisaged. However, although Iran’s cyber acumen has been touted in the past, a lack of response to US cyber attacks and the fall back to more conventional means to attack the Suadis shows that this may have been overrated, at least.

Inevitably the world will be monitoring what will transpire next, hoping that both sides will come to realize that any further escalation will only be detrimental, not just to them, but also to the global millieu.

*Efthimios Tsiliopoulos is an Associate Member of ISDA with Specialization in International Relations, Defense and Security issues