Rising US-Iran Tensions Risk Wider Military Confrontation
Neither side wants war, but possibility is still there, experts warn
Tensions between Washington and Tehran flared anew after two US fighter jets flew dangerously close to an Iranian airliner over war-torn Syria last week, forcing the pilots to take emergency action and causing injuries to some passengers.
The US military’s Central Command insisted in a statement that it was a “professional intercept … conducted in accordance with international standards.”
Iranian officials threatened legal action against the US in Iranian courts and to pursue the issue through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Court of Justice.
Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, accused Washington of trying to create tension between Syria and Iran.
“In Iran, it’s widely believed that either the Americans wanted to trick the Syrian air defenses into downing the airliner or they wanted to force the pilots into making a catastrophic mistake and bring down the plane,” he told The Media Line.
The latest incident is one in a series between arch foes Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear accord with Iran in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions.
Marandi argues that the US actions are meant to “hurt ordinary Iranians as much as possible,” saying Washington is “trying to prevent Iran from importing medicine, food, and supplies, and trying to destroy the economy so that families are destroyed, and people die.”
He called this “collective punishment of the ugliest sort” and believes the incident with the airliner is part of “that ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”
Iran has been fighting to contain the coronavirus outbreak since announcing its first cases on February 19. Over 16,000 persons have died from the pandemic in the Islamic Republic, according to official figures.
In January, a US drone killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, in Baghdad, bringing the two sides to the brink of military confrontation.
Iran asked Interpol to help arrest Trump and 35 other US officials for the assassination.
Marandi believes these incidents fuel hatred among Iranians toward the US.
“The message is to intimidate Iran and Iranians, but I’m very confident it’s quite obvious that it does the exact opposite,” he said, adding that the incidents create and intensify contempt for the United States.
The message is to intimidate Iran and Iranians, but I’m very confident it’s quite obvious that it does the exact opposite
Dr. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that US-Iran tensions have been on the rise for a while.
“It’s part of a series of tit-for-tat provocations and ‘gray zone’ attacks between the two sides that began in May 2019, when Iran initiated its ‘maximum resistance’ policy to counter the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions,” he said.
Ibish warns that although neither side is interested in escalating the tensions, events could take on a momentum of their own.
“Any action of this kind is always another risk for a conflict no one wants,” he stated.
Any action of this kind is always another risk for a conflict no one wants
“Neither side wants a full-blown war, which is why there hasn’t been one, but limited attacks can take on a life of their own and spiral out of control,” he continued. “It’s always a risk that events can get out of hand.”
Ibish says US policy is aimed at forcing Iran back to the “bargaining table to get a stronger deal than the JCPOA [the 2015 nuclear deal].”
The US pulled out of that agreement, which Iran had reached with six world powers and the European Union, and reinstated sanctions that have since battered the Islamic Republic’s economy. The move infuriated Tehran, which in turn reduced its commitments under the agreement to limit its uranium enrichment.
Yet Ibish argues that US policy seeks to achieve more than just having Tehran agree to a nuclear agreement that is satisfactory to Washington.
“The Trump Administration wants much longer sunsets [expiration dates] or maybe none at all on restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, limits on Iranian missile development and a stronger understanding that restricts Iran’s use of regional proxy militias like Hizbullah and the Iraqi PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces] groups, especially to attack US forces and interests in the Middle East,” he stated.
“Some people in the administration may hope to go beyond policy change and try to force or at least promote regime change. Others recognize this is a pipe dream. But they all agree that a stronger deal is the main policy goal,” he said.
Phillip Smyth, an expert on Iranian politics and 2018-2019 Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Washington’s stance toward Iran is working as planned.
“Maximum pressure is clearly yielding results,” he told The Media Line.
Maximum pressure is clearly yielding results
“Iran and the machinery it uses to control its militia proxies is running into some clear funding and, at times, control problems. However, as with any pressure program, patience and a level of determination is always key. Those running Tehran have demonstrated that they are ideologically committed to staying their course,” he noted.
Smyth argues that the two nemeses are involved in “a low-grade conflict,” and despite Tehran’s recent “massive” losses, he believes Iran is “playing a longer-term game” and is not yet ready to exact its revenge.
“If the low-grade response to the killing of Soleimani or Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [a top PMF commander] is any signal, the Iranians are likely not going to respond due to this incident,” he said. “Right now, Tehran is eager to keep up a slowly burning series of incidents in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”
Iran considers the US military presence in neighboring Iraq a threat to its national security, and Ibish argues that the parties’ actions could spill over and involve other actors in the region.
“It’s obviously extremely destabilizing,” he noted.
“For Iraq, the country’s use as a proxy battleground for Iran and the US is a political disaster that divides the society bitterly and deeply. Gulf states worry they will be frontline targets of Iranian attacks. Iran and Hizbullah have propped up an exceptionally brutal and divisive regime in Syria and fueled the war in Yemen,” Ibish said.
The waters of the Gulf, he adds, “are constantly threatened by Iran’s determination to insist that it is part of any maritime security structure – even informally – and keep making the point that if Tehran cannot sell its oil because of sanctions, they can ensure [that] others cannot sell theirs either, by attacking shipping targets militarily or attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz.”
The latest round of incidents comes on the heels of heightened tensions between Iran’s ally Hizbullah and Israel.
Iran has been expanding its influence steadily in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. Israel has been targeting Iranian forces and fighters from Hizbullah.
Marandi argues that Washington’s actions are in support of Israel.
“I think one of the main problems in this region is that all American acts are based upon what is perceived as to be the needs of the Israeli regime,” he said.
I think one of the main problems in this region is that all American acts are based upon what is perceived as to be the needs of the Israeli regime
Iran’s Foreign Ministry was quoted by state media as saying that the latest encounters might be linked to the upcoming US presidential election, and Marandi says that with the political troubles Trump seems to be having, he may resort to starting a war with Iran.
“The American government is very provocative. Some believe that since Trump is not doing well at the moment in the polls, that maybe he may try to carry out some sort of provocation to create conflict, to muster support among ordinary Americans, and to use a war or conflict as some sort of rallying call to increase his support among the public,” the professor said.
The two sides have come close to a full-fledged military confrontation several times since the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran four decades ago.
Brian O’Toole, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and a former official at the US Treasury Department, told The Media Line that despite all efforts to avoid it, the possibility of war still existed.
“The level of animosity, belligerence on both sides, and brinksmanship increase the likelihood of an actual clash. Not because either side wants it, but because there is little room for error on either side, and a simple mistake could lead to active shooting at one another,” O’Toole said.
The level of animosity, belligerence on both sides, and brinksmanship increase the likelihood of an actual clash. Not because either side wants it, but because there is little room for error on either side, and a simple mistake could lead to active shooting at one another
Sina Azodi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Media Line that because of “Trump’s personal reluctance to use force, we are experiencing an era of high tensions, which creates fertile ground for miscalculation and conflict.”
Yet Azodi asserts that no one should expect changes in US-Iranian relations anytime soon.
“Iran seems to hope that a Biden administration will bring the US back to the JCPOA, but as Iran’s [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif noted, Tehran operates under the assumption that Trump will win,” he said.
“Also keep in mind that by the time Biden takes office, [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani will have roughly six months before the next Iranian president takes over. So, unfortunately,” Azodi said, “I’m forecasting a gloomy near-future.”