Relations between the US and Iran are at risk of escalating into conflict.
Last week, the US responded to unspecified threats from Iran by announcing the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and a B-52 bomber group to the region. John Bolton, the US national security advisor, has said that the US will respond to any attack on its forces or its allies with ‘unrelenting force’.
Since President Trump left the Iran deal in May 2018, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. The deal seeks to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in return for the easing of sanctions. The US has subsequently re-imposed economic sanctions, and last month, the administration announced that waivers, which had enabled some states to continue buying Iran’s oil, would end. With Iran’s revenue and currency falling, the sanctions are causing serious problems.
The Trump administration has not specified the nature of Iran’s recent increased military activities, however, it is likely to involve Shi’ite militias in Iraq which are trained, armed, and advised by Iran. The paramilitaries are now formally part of Iraq’s security forces following their role in combatting Islamic State, however, they retain a high level of independence. The Popular Mobilisation Forces, the umbrella organisation of the mostly Shi’ite militias, numbers around 150,000 men.
Reuters has cited Iraqi security sources as saying that during his visit to Iraq earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Iraqi commanders that intelligence showed the militias were positioning rockets near bases housing US soldiers. Iraq is concerned that it will get caught in the cross fire between its two allies. The New York Times has also reported that US intelligence has photographs of suspected Iranian missiles onboard boats in the Persian Gulf.
On Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said that he did not want a military confrontation. According to comments quoted by state media, Mr Khamenei said: “Neither we are looking for a war, nor they are, as they know that it will not be in their interests.
“The definite option in front of the Iranian nation is resistance against the US, which will [eventually] be forced to retreat.”
On Wednesday, the US ordered all non-essential diplomatic personnel to leave Iraq. This included staff at the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil. The following day, the UK Ministry of Defence increased the threat level for British troops in Iraq without specifying the nature of the threat.
President Trump is reportedly reluctant to go to war with Iran, despite the hawkish tendencies of his top officials. Some fear that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton want to see regime change in Iran.
Senior congressional leaders have requested a full intelligence briefing and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reminded the president that he has ‘no authorisation’ to declare war on Iran. Despite the president’s role as commander-in-chief, the constitution stipulates that only congress can declare war.
This escalation between Iran and the US comes as four oil tankers were attacked on Sunday near the UAE’s Fujairah port, just outside the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Photos have been released of a large hole in the hull of a Norwegian tanker. Whilst the UAE has refused to attribute blame, a US official has said their intelligence agencies believe that Iran proxies (either militias in Iraq or the Houthi rebels in Yemen) were behind the attack.
Two days later, Saudi Arabia reported that two of its oil pumping stations were hit by drone attacks. Yemeni Houthi rebels, who are fighting a four-year war against a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, have claimed responsibility for the attack. In response, the Saudi-led coalition conducted air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister has accused Tehran of ordering the attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure.
The growing tensions in the region have domestically isolated Iran’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. The hardline factions in the government have become more assertive in response to the actions of the US and its allies. Today, a deputy head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards reportedly said that even Iran’s short-range missiles could hit US ships in the Gulf. Despite warnings of ‘accidentally’ falling into war from the Europeans, tensions seem unlikely to subside.