07 January 2020

The escalation of tension between Iran and the US

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

The undeclared war between the US and Iran has entered a new stage, one of assumed attacks with human casualties, and yet what a casualty! – the mastermind behind Iran’s military and terrorist actions, General Qassem Soleimani. Following this attack, although the US will not escalate, in attempts to avoid an unwanted war, while it is also content that the economic war is yielding results and that one of the Iran’s hybrid methods of “escaping the stranglehold” (the attack of US troops and the US Embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian Shia militias) was blocked, at least for the moment, the chances of de-escalation are reduced, as Tehran is forced to answer. Militarily, the US found a solution to the hybrid war, at least as brutal as the terrorist actions carried out by Iran under this guise: it assumes the elimination of the mastermind behind these hybrid actions. Therefore, the entire scaffolding holding the hybrid war becomes useless, especially the lack of assumed actions, which transformed terrorists into legitimate politicians.

Image source: Mediafax

The ball is in Tehran’s field, and the regime will not leave things stand as they are, as this affected its entire strategy in the region, but also the prestige it built with many military and financial efforts, from the myth of invincibility (a combination of political cunning, brutal military actions assumed in Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Yemen and unassumed terrorist actions in Saudi Arabia and other states, including European ones) to the major political gains it obtained through controlling the majority of states with Shia residents, even if the latter are minorities in some of them (the corruption-fuelled control of a great part of the Iraqi political class; propping-up Bashar al Assad to power in Syria; the control of Yemen, via Houthi rebels; the military and political control of Lebanon, via Hezbollah). On the other hand, Tehran must be careful to not have its fundamental interest affected, which is maintaining the Ayatollah regime in power.  An open conflict with the US will be lost faster than it is believed, especially as the regime does not have the guarantee of the population’s support. Rallied behind decision-maker Khamenei, the representatives of military structures, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps/IRGC, the de facto holders of political, economic and militarized power, will be very careful with their following steps: why lose everything in a war with an unknown result, especially as the ideological element has long been overpassed by the materialistic one (as in any “security apparatus” of a dictatorial regime). It is one thing to commit aggressions with no direct risks in the region, and another entirely to start a war with the US, which would mean a sentence to extinction, especially because Iran does not have allies, but only accomplices, who will not get involved in case of a major conflict.

Iran received a harsh strike, but the Ayatollah regime will react in a calculated manner, starting with a diplomatic offensive, attempting to create the international image of the US being a military aggressor, while also seeking to obtain popular support internally (as much as can be obtained, after one thousand Iranians were shot in cold blood when they protested against the regime). After the shock produced by this execution will dissipate, Tehran will seek a political strategy of victimizing itself, but will also attempt to make challenges, and carry out a dual military strategy: continuous actions through Iraqi Shia militias, with gradually rising intensity, especially in Baghdad, in anticipation of a complex strategical answer to inflict serious damage to American interests, but unassumed by Tehran. It is not excluded for one of these actions to happen in Baghdad, under the guise of the US Embassy being attacked by “protesters” and which might result in a hostage situation. Iran will consider every means of response which will be a detriment to the interests of the US and its allies, but which will also not lead to the country being accused. Most probable are attacks on US troops and other objectives by its proxies in other states, where Iranian operatives have the capacity to do this without the risk of the country being identified. Iran will also seek to escalate its actions on all directions, from blocking navigation in the Gulf to military pressures over US allies. Tehran will be encouraged by the fact that the US do not want an escalation (afraid as it is of becoming involved in a new conflict in the Middle East), but will be limited by the fact that it cannot force the bill and risk to push the US towards such a war, if it goes too far.

Most probably, the two states will face off in Iraq for the moment, with the country trapped between the two “occupation powers”. In any case, the scene remains open, especially as Iran will act through hybrid means, so an Iranian attack on US interests is to be expected anywhere in the world, at least anywhere Iran can “reach”. Unfortunately, Iran can probably “reach” Romania, where there are US objectives, including military ones! Iran’s response to the killing of Gen. Soleimani is not a problem of “if”, but rather of “where” and “how”, in order to benefit from the merit of having attacked… without the possibility of being accused for the attack! This is what works right now, after both Iran and Russia successfully carried out hybrid/unassumed actions, and juggled with international law up to denying it.

On the other hand, the US want de-escalation because it proved what it set out to prove, preferring to keep the war in the economic area, where it achieves relative success, but also because Donald Trump does not have a strategy for the Middle East, but only a contradictory objective: to withdraw the military from the region without affecting the interests of the US and their allies (including with a “surrounded” Iran).

Although they are covered by declaring the IGRC as a terrorist organization and by the argument of prevention (easy to contest, especially as information cannot be presented to the public in order to maintain the confidentiality of the sources), the US have opened a controversial chapter, not only in relations with Iran – the “beheading”, or assumed termination of military-political leaders of an enemy power, outside of a declared war! Even if it has a certain deterrence effect (no leader of a power opposing the US will sleep lightly after this attack, especially Khamenei), a new “Pandora’s box” was opened in an already complicated world, which has less and less rules that are actually respected.

President Trump justified his decision through the necessity of preventing the loss of American lives, with the White House leaking information in this regard, and administration leaders restated the fact that it was a very well calculated step – which took into account strategic consequences – and not a hasty decision. The problem resides in the fact that democrats have not taken the traditional bi-partisan stance, criticizing the president’s decision and even accusing him of launching a war without consulting the Congress. Although there is “still a need” for a decision from Tehran in this regard, the accusations are not far from the truth: the attack equals an act of war. However, the democrats should remember how they tolerated Iran in the past (one of the leaders of Shia militias involved in anti-American actions was in Washington, to meet with President Obama, as a minister in the Maliki cabinet!). President Trump will have the support of the majority of the American public opinion, which is tired of seeing its soldiers killed by those who cannot be punished (or could not be until now: Soleimani coordinated the actions of Shia militias which led to the killing of hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq). The Trump Administration is already intensely presenting the image of Soleimani being the Shia equivalent of Sunni terrorists (and this is not too far from the truth, with Shia extremism only having the advantage of become a state policy).

Another problem for the Trump Administration is the limited international support it enjoys. Europeans reacted relatively well, calling for de-escalation and expressing their concern towards regional consequences, but did not condemn the attack. Germany took an unexpectedly realistic stance, in support of the US, but the UK and France were also not far off from such a stance (Paris corrected the Russian statement on a Macron – Putin phone call which referred to a condemnation of the attack. Well, these are the risks of “strategic openness” towards Moscow). However, it is very unlikely for Europeans to become involved if matters escalate. Israel appreciated the US decision and placed its army on alert, a normal reaction, as this state is one of Iran’s main targets, either directly or by proxy. However, Israel obtained what it wanted: the US and Israel are now in the same boat (several weeks ago, the Israeli army chief complained that Israel is facing Iran on its own). Of course, Russia and China condemned the attack, but also called for restraint, indicating their lack of direct involvement in the stand-off. Which means that Iran is also on its own in front of the US, a situation it was expecting, because complicity against the US does not translate to an alliance. At the same time, Turkey was ambivalent, but Ankara’s message does not hold any current relevancy for the policy decided by the US. The Trump Administration is obliged to fight both internally, but also with its allies in order to keep the support necessary to keep the current firm stance against Iran.

The Trump Administration will probably use a triple strategy in the region:

1) continue the great strategy of economically containing Iran, which will now be doubled by counteracting Tehran’s diplomatic manoeuvring in order to present itself as a victim of military aggression;

2) adopt a defensive strategy throughout the entire Middle East to defend bases and other US objectives. Among the most visible in this regard is the deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait, but there is also a high probability for other massive deployments of air and naval capacities to ensure a first military reaction against Iran, including by the attack of objectives on its territory, if the situation requests it;

3) tactically, combining defensive-preventive measures, in order to defend its objectives in the Gulf region, especially in Iraq and Baghdad (from maintaining its troops in maximum alert to intensifying air and naval patrols and especially having an immediate reaction to defend the US Embassy in Baghdad, which will probably be the centre of Iranian immediate reactions through proxies, the Iraqi Shia pro-Iranian militias), with the offensive ones, also especially in Baghdad – through special forces actions to capture the leaders of some militias, as well as other preventive means of diminishing their combat capacities.

The US will not neglect the political aspect either, as Iran has the capacity to mobilize the political elements it controls in order to obtain an Iraqi political decision to expel US troops from Iraq (a big disadvantage in this regard is the Iraqi population’s adversity to Iranian control over the country through this corrupt elite, but also the balanced, definitely not pro-Iranian stance of Ayatollah al-Sistani, the religious leader of Iraqi Shias). The US will take additional security measures on its territory and in its objectives worldwide, especially in those Iran has the capacity of reaching.

The most important consequences for Romania, if the situation escalates, are as follows:

1) military: although it is fairly unlikely, as even though Iran has ballistic missiles with the range necessary to reach military objectives in Europe, and these are probably the last on the list of targets drafted by Iranian planners, the BMD system hosted by Romania has an important role in defending Europe against this very improbable attack with Iranian missiles;

2) political: as the situation on the ground escalates and the diplomatic manoeuvres necessary for each of the two parties to consolidate their international stance amplify, Romania could find itself in the situation of openly showing, probably within a NATO decision, its loyalty to its main ally, the US, approving its stance in the conflict with Iran;

3) security: both from the political reason, but especially due to Iran’s hybrid response plans on the unassumed striking of US objectives wherever it has the capacity to do so in the world, the possibility of terrorists attacks on bases and other US objectives in Romania cannot be excluded, be it directly or, most probably, by proxies (Hezbollah operatives or those who belong to other such pro-Iranian militias which were declared terrorist by the US and, in most cases, by the EU). The current situation can raise security concerns for Romanian citizens in the Middle East or other areas where they can become collateral victims of terrorist or other types of attacks, as well as for the Romanian troops caught in theatres of operation.

The spiral of escalation will evolve slowly, but surely, and it remains to be seen when will Tehran decide to take a decisive action. President Trump, although he attempted to avoid having “his war” (as every US president had), he now has low chances to escape this. The entire world is assisting, mostly powerless, at how one of the conflicts which had been chronicled for the decades is drawing closer to the point where a war will be hard to avoid. Neither side wants it, but the situation has reached the point where serious efforts will have to be made by both sides in order to avoid a war, with peace in these conditions being unacceptable for Tehran and, in some accepts, for the US.

It will probably be a war, regardless of whether it will be declared or not or whether they will wage it with weapons or only with “computers”, although it will be hard to recognise it as such, without respecting the known boundaries of a conflict. But, firstly, Tehran will take some time to think, with the occasion of Gen. Qassim Soleimani’s funeral ceremony, along which it will construct the image of a “great martyr” with the purpose of uniting all Iranians and Shias around the Ayatollah regime in their fight against “Satan”. During this period, both the international reaction towards the event as well as the magnitude of internal political support for this new stage in President Trump’s anti-Iranian policy will be clarified, with bipartisanship being a thing of the past in Washington. At the same time, the defensive measures taken by the US will be finished (the ongoing deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division).

Therefore, Tehran will have a clearer image on the possibilities of a hybrid response. And it will make it, although it knows that the US are waiting, prepared to answer, even if they do not want to escalate. But Tehran also does not have a choice, with the strike it received being too visible to let it go unanswered.

Both Tehran and Washington will try to solve the “squaring of the circle”[i], with reduced chances for the square of peace to be equal to the circle of war.

Translated by Ionut Preda

[i] In today’s world, the solution to this was also found, even if it is a wrong one. Mathematically, not politically.