Neither the United States nor Iran really wants war, we are told, because the reality of such a conflict is too horrific to contemplate. But the Gulf tanker crisis and the US response shows that we are alarmingly close to open hostilities.
It is true that there are voices in the US defence establishment calling for restraint. It appears to be the case, too, that the Iranian government is operating on the assumption that the US does not want a war. But there are several reasons why such assumptions are not a sound basis for judgement.
First, some do want military action against Iran. And they really are not marginal players. They include the US's two main allies in the Middle East and the two most senior foreign policy officials in the US government. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel have been putting a strong case for action against Iran for some years. The US and its Western allies are closer to these countries’ governments than they have ever been.
John Bolton, who as National Security Advisor is the last man in any meeting with the President, is famously an advocate of war against the Islamic Republic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is equally hawkish. As a Republican Tea Party member of Congress from 2011 to 2017, Pompeo regularly called for regime change in Iran. In 2014, he demanded the Barack Obama administration break off the talks that led to the Iran nuclear deal. He even called for launching airstrikes, saying fewer than 2000 bombing sorties could take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
No surprises, then, that Pompeo’s response to the attacks on tankers in the Gulf has been to insist, without credible evidence, that Iran is responsible and throw in a highly questionable list of alleged recent Iranian atrocities for good measure.
On top of the latest round of tanker attacks, these include an assault on the Green Zone in Baghdad not previously linked to Iran and a bombing in Afghanistan that has actually been claimed by the Taliban. Listening to his statement, it was hard not to be reminded of the adrenaline-pumped pronouncements in the run up to war in Iraq.
US President Donald Trump's impulsive foreign policy style is hardly reassuring in this situation. His record of provocative action includes threatening North Korea with a nuclear strike, dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan and surprise missile blitzes in Syria. But such confrontational and unpredictable behaviour is not just a quirk of personality. Despite Trump's apparent isolationist rhetoric during his election campaign, America First policy has in practice meant less concern with multilateral institutions and an increased belligerence in key areas.
The general view in Washington is that Obama's strategy of projecting US power through proxies and drone warfare, stressing alliances and power balancing, failed to deal with the national humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan or to rise to new challenges. Hence, arms spending has been ramped up and confronting Russia and Chinese influence has been flagged as the central concern. Faced with growing military challengers, the administration’s approach is essentially to take them on and win.
The Iran policy has been developed in this context. Scrapping the nuclear deal and tightening sanctions on Iran are chiefly designed to inflict regime change, but are also meant as a signal of a new bullishness in the Middle East and beyond.
The results have been disastrous. The Iranian currency has plummeted, imports have been badly affected and living standards have fallen sharply. Last month's ending of the oil exemptions has brought things to crisis point. Oil exports, by far Iran's biggest earner, look like halving this month compared with last.
Even in the short term, this is extremely damaging. Far from encouraging domestic opposition to the regime, most commentators agree this economic warfare is strengthening anti-Western feeling and pushing the regime towards retaliation.
In the last few days Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but rejected the invitation he apparently carried from Trump, saying “I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with and I have no answer for him, nor will I respond to him in the future”.
War with Iran is closer than it has ever been. Just like in the run up to war in Iraq, there is a very powerful Washington lobby who think it is sound policy. In general, the Washington foreign policy establishment is on a rebound from the perceived timidity of the Obama years, in particular the situation with Iran is becoming tenser by the day. War can be avoided, but the anti-war movement needs to be active and organised.
[Chris Nineham is vice chair of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. Reprinted from Stop the War Coalition.]