(Persia Digest) - President Donald Trump's decision to send additional U.S. military assets to the Persian Gulf region and the United Kingdom's proposal to form a coalition of European forces to patrol the Strait of Hormuz may only exacerbate the risk of confrontation with Iran.
Tom O'Connor writes in Newsweek that since May, the Trump administration has deployed a carrier strike group, a bomber task force and up to 2,500 troops to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which received on Tuesday its first contingent of U.S. soldiers since 2003, the year the U.S. invaded and overthrew neighboring Iraq.
Sixteen years later, Washington is on the verge of facing off with another foe, Tehran, which the Trump administration has attempted to isolate with unilateral sanctions popular with partners in the Arabian Peninsula but opposed by European allies, along with China and Russia — all signatories to a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran abandoned last year by the U.S.
With the prospect of dialogue impeded by difficult preconditions unlikely to be conceded by either side, experts have raised concern that a conflict could erupt either by design or miscalculation. Foreign policy analyst Shahed Ghoreishi, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced and International Studies, told Newsweek that "the Trump administration has pigeon-holed itself with increasingly audacious allies...who believe they have the leverage in their bilateral relationships with the United States now that the diplomatic door has closed with Iran."
"The U.S. now lacks strategic flexibility in the region," Ghoreishi said. "The military expansion into Saudi Arabia is particularly egregious as it makes clear we've already forgotten the consequences of our last deployment to the country."
The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two most sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, has historically been controversial, and not just among adherents to Iran's brand of revolutionary Shiite Islam, but also ideological rivals aligned with jihadi strains of Sunni Islam. The Pentagon's deployment there was cited as motivations for the militants behind the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya and the 9/11 attacks at home in 2001.
Trump has repeatedly criticized his predecessors for the wars launched since 9/11, costing the U.S. at least $6 trillion, but now finds himself on a potential warpath of his own. In spite of his anti-interventionist tendencies, the president has been goaded on by hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton, who has played a key role in pushing the U.S. toward war with Iraq, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Even if the president sought to engage in a "limited strike" against Iran, Sina Azodi, a security expert at Gulf State Analytics, told Newsweek that the "Iranians would really be inclined to respond to look powerful enough — which could expand to a full-fledged conflict."
"Sending more troops to Saudi Arabia can be a reliable deterrent to make sure that things don't escalate as they are — but the problem here is that ground forces are likely to be useless unless the U.S. is willing to consider a ground invasion, which I think is going to be a huge strategic mistake on the behalf of U.S.," Azodi said. "I think that sending troops can be an effective deterrent, but I believe that Tehran calculates that Washington isn't interested in using force (they are not either). Iran has historically viewed the Persian Gulf as its backyard and the lifeline of its economy and has seen the presence of foreign troops as an existential threat to its security."
The United Kingdom, like other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), continued to support it, but London has stepped up its own role in the Trump administration's self-styled "maximum pressure" campaign by seizing the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 earlier this month in Gibraltar, accusing it of attempting to violate EU sanctions by transporting oil to Syria. Nearly a week ago, Iran seized a U.K.-flagged oil tanker accused of breaking the rules in the Strait of Hormuz in what has widely been viewed as a tit-for-tat measure.
"For centuries, the British Navy roamed the Persian Gulf, shelled Iranian cities, put a siege on the Iranian island of Kharg and confiscated Iranian shipments of oil in the early 1950s," Azodi told Newsweek. "For the first time ever, the Iranian military has boarded a British ship at a time when it was being escorted by the Royal Navy and the footage that they released with the IRGC's special forces boarding the ship is pretty much the same as the footage that the Brits released when they seized the Iranian tanker — the message is clear: If you do this, I can do this too because I am powerful and you need to recognize my presence."
Even more recently, U.S. forces regularly patrolled the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, a conflict in which Washington and most other major global powers backed the latter. This period saw several bloody episodes between international forces, none more so than the U.S.' downing of Iran Air Flight 655 after reportedly mistaking it for an attacking F-14, an event that killed 290 civilians, in July 1989.
Today, Azodi said that Iran would see pros and cons in the formation of an international maritime coalition, viewing it as "bad in a sense that again foreign naval forces are coming into its backyard and also good in a sense that it can show it is powerful enough to force the major powers of the world to react to its provocations," emphasizing that "Iran acts provocatively but is not suicidal."
"Looking at Iran's behavior, my opinion is that Iran demands respect and recognition by major powers especially by the U.S. and U.K., as a regional power that cannot be ignored from regional calculations," he added, arguing that, instead, the "doors for diplomacy are being shut and zero-sum calculations and fear of others are becoming the dominant view" in a regional climate he compared to "the same trajectory that Europe went in 1914" — ultimately leading to the outbreak of World War I.
Potential back-channel communications aside, Washington and Tehran's public stances on opening formal talks are currently incompatible. The U.S. has demanded that Iran first abandon its alleged support for militant groups across the region and quit its ballistic missile development, while Iranian officials have demanded that the U.S. first lift the economic restrictions it has imposed, leading to an impasse that Ghoreishi warned has left the Trump administration raising the stakes for violence in the region.
"By reopening the nuclear issue with Iran, threatening the country, and expanding its military presence, the administration is increasing the likelihood for an incident in the Persian Gulf and, worst case, war," Ghoreishi told Newsweek. "At the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars already spent on misguided policies in the region, there is no strategic explanation for repeating the same mistakes."
In order to avoid an outcome comparative to another world war leadup, Ghoreishi suggested that, "instead of approaching Iran with a military-first mentality, the Trump administration should use diplomacy to lower tensions — starting out by returning to the JCPOA and using the diplomatic opening to expand talks," calling on the U.S. to foster a more inclusive conversation between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
"The eventual goal should be to bring Iran and its GCC rivals together in order to establish a regional security framework that would give the U.S. the opportunity to no longer serve as the security guarantor in a region that's strategic relevance to the United States is as questionable as ever."