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Thursday, January 23, 2020
DENVER, May 8 2019 (IPS) - With the recent military moves announced uncharacteristically by the White House first, the world is witnessing with grim fascination what could turn out to be the early moves towards a war against Iran. How plausible is this scenario and what is likely to happen geopolitically if and when the US belligerence leads to an actual military confrontation with Iran?
We have already seen this process of downward spiraling of US-Iran relations beginning with the US unilateral exit from the historical Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) without the consent from our European allies with the resulting division between the US and Europe regarding policies towards Iran. US also restored sanctions against Iran but gave some time for energy-needy allies to import energy from Iran against a deadline. Some like Japan complied grudgingly with the US orders. Others, particularly China and India went on importing Iranian energy.
Recently, the US has escalated the pressure on Iran by banning those countries still importing Iranian oil from doing so. If anyone does sanctions-breaking business with Iran they will be properly punished, the Trump administration has warmed. The sanctions may not work as well as Trump’s analysts and US propaganda machine have claimed; but even their partial effects could be a call for Iran to wake up. However, contrary to the wishful thinking of Trump, this wake-up call for Iran will mean in all likelihood, not to negotiate by capitulating to US demands. The sanctions together with the most recent military moves have already produced— according to all neutral observers’ reports— a “rallying-around-the flag” response by the majority of people of Iran. Contrary to the claims of some pro-US Iranian dissident groups abroad, pro-Israel lobbyists and Saudi-UAE propagandists, the sanctions have not weakened the regime politically in Iran at all. Ironically, the sanctions have isolated—indeed divided— the genuine pro-democracy critics of the Islamic Republic within Iran and have strengthened the hardliners politically.
As this further escalation using bullying rhetoric accompanied by confirming bullying behavior continues with more military moves by the US fleet and announcements from the White House— led by Bolton— the situation can only worsen. If the most recent episode is an indication after Bolton’s mpvesfirst, there will soon be echoes from other parts of the US government more directly in charge of foreign policy and military matters. If that keeps happening, the Iranian hardliners will surely double down and prepare for an asymmetric war—something they have announced already as a possible scenario. Given Iran’s military weakness vis- a- vis the US and its regional allies, such a response will seem to these military minds to be eminently rational in terms of military tactics. Anyone familiar with the recent developments in non-cooperative game theory will be able to understand this response as a logical deduction in the environment that the US has created with the series of moves that began with the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The asymmetric response by Iran—the Iranian military strategists have made clear—will also draw in the Hezbollah and other Iranian military assets in the region outside of Iranian borders. Thus further future involvement of Syrians and even Turkey can not be ruled out at this point. Given the geopolitical strategic importance of both Iran and Syria to Russia, even if Turkey does not get involved, Russia will surely have to consider its options in terms of its long term geopolitical strategic interests. As a rising power, PRC may not become directly involved, but it is a safe bet that China will aid Iran financially and like Russia also by supplying some categories weapons—particularly aircrafts and surface to air missiles. If Trump thinks that attacking Iran will bring Chinese to the negotiating table to make further real concessions to the US, he is surely fantasizing.
This being the case, what will the US really gain geopolitically? According to political analysts, there are two groups in US high level policy making arena. Trump, it is claimed, is a transactions oriented leader and wants Iran to come to the table after suffering losses with a better deal for the US. But the details of how this could happen or what kind of deal the US could expect have not been revealed.
The second group centered around Bolton—according to the geopolitical analysts— wants to draw Iran into a military confrontation if economic sanctions by themselves do not lead to a regime change. Even in my worst case economic scenario for Iran a regime change from sanctions alone does not seem likely. So will the US or its proxies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia then engage in an actual military operation?
The very possibility is worrying. But sober calculations in light of outcomes of interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya do not seem encouraging. There is no prospect of a quick victory against Iran and any lengthy intervention will destabilize the region further. It is also not clear what the Chinese and Russian military responses in the medium run will be. The conflict may escalate into a regional war and even an extra-regional war depending on some of these responses.
Therefore, without sounding alarmist, one has to hope that Trump is bluffing even though Bolton and the neocons are not. But even if Trump exercises a false brinkmanship even when it is not necessary and will ultimately not work, in order to get the US a better deal— whatever that means— according to military logic, the Iranians will be foolish to act on the assumption that there is a substantial difference between Trump and Bolton leading to Trump’s putting an end to US moves towards a war or warlike situation. To be clear-eyed about this danger, from all available evidence, the Iranian strategists are preparing to not fall into a US laid trap by acting first and provoking a US military response that will start a war. However, once they think that US is about to start bombing Iran, they will surely take what they consider to be appropriate asymmetric actions. And therein lies the dangers of a conflagaration that can easily get out of any great power’s control.
The writer is a Professor of Economics, University of Denver. Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former Senior Economic Adviser to UNCTAD. He could be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org
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