The past week witnessed a sudden spurt of tensions in the US-Iran standoff. There was intense speculation that to divert public attention in America from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump might order a military attack on Iran.
Trump himself fuelled the speculation with the sudden outburst in a tweet on April 1: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”
This coincided with a sensational report in the New York Times citing secret documents that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien are pushing for aggressive military activity against Iran and its Iraqi affiliates, and now see a good execution opportunity when everyone is busy with the Corona epidemic.
Specifically, the daily reported that on March 19, a debate was held on this issue in the White House, but Trump wouldn’t yet make a decision and instead ordered to continue planning and the Pentagon duly instructed military commanders to prepare a plan to destroy a pro-Iranian militia responsible for attacks against US troops in Iraq.
However, the report added that US military commanders, including Defence Secretary Mark Asper and United Chief of Staff General Mark Miley, warned that a campaign against Iran at this time could set fire to the entire Middle East and there is growing concern over the proliferation of the Corona epidemic in the military ranks, which may pose danger to operational capability in high-alert units.
Meanwhile, US military sources disclosed to the AFP that Patriot air defence systems have been deployed to two Iraqi military bases as a precaution against Iranian-backed militia attacks, while it is planned that another two Patriot batteries would also be deployed to Iraq.
Tehran, of course, strongly reacted at various levels, civilian and military, rebutting Trump’s allegation. (Trump’s tweet came just an hour after a scheduled intelligence briefing, hinting that his intelligence briefing team directed his attention towards a near-term Iranian plot.)
On April 1, Iranian Foreign Ministry in a statement called for a halt to “warmongering during the coronavirus outbreak” and warned that the US military activities could lead it to “instability and disaster”. On April 2, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on the tweeter page addressing Trump, “Don’t be misled by usual warmongers, AGAIN. Iran starts no wars, but teaches lessons to those who do.”
Tehran does not want an escalation of tensions. In an article analysing the US military moves in Iraq, which was carried by the official news agency IRNA on April 2, Major-General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, advisor to the Supreme Leader, explicitly took note that the US political elite and military commanders also disfavour any “extensive military conflict.”
Clearly, Tehran hoped to tamp down tensions. At any rate, the rhetoric (on both sides) has since petered off. Iran has signalled that it will not provoke any military escalation and the US.
But the really interesting part is that the US side also did some positive signalling. Thus,
- On March 30, the US-led counterterrorism coalition in Iraq announced in a statement that it has handed over three of its bases to the Iraqi government over the past two weeks by way of “repositioning troops”.
- On March 31, the UK, France and Germany announced the first sale of goods to Iran (unrelated to coronavirus) using a bartering mechanism called Instex established to bypass US sanctions. The German Foreign Ministry hinted that more transactions are in the pipeline. Evidently, Washington was in the loop but chose to look away.
- In fact, on March 31, Pompeo held out the possibility for the first time that the US may consider easing sanctions on Iran to help fight the coronavirus epidemic.
- On April 1, US defence officials told POLITICO that the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman is planning to leave the Gulf, marking the end of the first extended use of two carriers in the region, in a drawdown that can only signal that the threat of reprisal attacks from Iran or its proxies has subsided.
- On April 2, Joe Biden, former US vice-president and leading Democratic presidential candidate, issued a lengthy statement on Iran, calling on the Trump administration to take specific steps to ease sanctions, which include: “issuing broad licenses to pharmaceutical and medical device companies; creating a dedicated channel for international banks, transportation companies, insurers, and other service firms to help Iranians access life-saving medical treatment; issuing new sanctions guidance to these groups and international aid organisations to make it clear how they can immediately, directly, and legally respond to the tragedy in Iran, without fear of penalty; and, for entities already conducting enhanced due diligence, it should issue comfort letters to reassure them that they will not be subject to U.S. sanctions if they engage in humanitarian trade with Iran to support its COVID-19 response.”
- On April 3, Trump himself said that the US would think about the issue of sanctions to help Iran fight the coronavirus if Tehran asked for it. As he put it, “I have a moral responsibility to help them (Iran) if they ask. If they needed help, I would certainly consider different things… if they wanted help because they have a very big case of the virus, one of the worst on Earth, we would give them help… If they want to meet, we would love to meet. And we would like to settle the whole thing… We are not looking for government change. This country has been through that many times. That does not work.”
Could it be that the US policy and action in Iraq and the Gulf is on the turn? The US is resorting more and more to rear-guard steps, as the events of the past week show — dysfunctional and aimed at hindering or delaying dynamics it can no longer manage.
A former British ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton KCMG noted recently, “The US demands from Iran further security and political concessions across the board, to an extent that no country would accept short of defeat in war… (But) probably through 2020, if not longer, the tyrannical grip of US maximum pressure on Iran seems inevitable, thanks to the dollar’s international role.”
True, diplomacy appears to be at a standstill. But then, the seasoned British diplomat wrote before the coronavirus outbreak. Conceivably, it cannot be lost on Trump that the US strategic ambition (shared with Israel) — to hang tough and so be done with Iran once and for all — belongs to a priori history.