By Riad Kahwaji*
The recent series of moves and counter-moves in the Iran-U.S. showdown has revealed that President Donald Trump’s weapon of choice, has and still is America’s economic power, while Tehran’s only remaining option is using its wide array of asymmetrical military capabilities through its Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) or its proxies. While Washington has so far managed to exercise strong self-restraint against Iranian repeated provocations, its patience might run out soon, especially if American blood was shed in any future attacks by the IRGC or its proxies.
President Trump’s eleventh hour decision to call off an air and naval assault on Iranian air defense batteries and radars in retaliation to the downing of an American reconnaissance drone has proven that the current U.S. Administration is not itching for a war with Iran. The perception it has created of itself is of an Administration that is keen on sticking to an election-campaign promise to avoid sliding into new wars in the Middle East region. At the same time, it remains adamant on fulfilling another election-campaign promise of cancelling the old nuclear agreement with Iran and forcing Tehran to negotiate a new deal that will more-or-less end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump’s doctrine has become clearer with time and it is largely based on using America’s mighty economic powers through either sanctions or tariff wars to bully its adversaries into submission to its demands. Using U.S. powerful military capabilities has thus far been for a show of force to deter the adversaries. This was clear in the showdown with North Korea, China and other countries.
However, Iran is proving to be a tougher challenge and its counter-moves to resist U.S. maximum economic pressure might complicate things to Washington and compel it to seriously consider military options. Iran is clearly willing to resort to violent means and push the situation to the brink of war, even though the balance of power is largely in U.S. favor. So today Tehran is the one that appears ready to go to war, while Washington is trying to avoid it. Iran is basically using an extortion strategy warning the international community that if U.S. sanctions continue and it has no alternatives to do business with the outside world then it will push the current conflict towards a regional war that will spread from the Mediterranean coast to Afghanistan going through strategic passages of Hormuz Strait and Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
Whether it was intentional or moving by a good businessman instinct, Trump’s decision to hold off the military strike has improved Washington’s position and presented it as a party seeking diplomatic and economic pressure to achieve its goals, while Iran was the one using military means to implement its policy. Recent events have also revealed the extent of power Iran has managed to build in the region via its proxy forces. The long policy of tolerance and appeasement by EU and the Barack Obama Administration towards Tehran’s expansionist policies has allowed Iran to establish itself militarily in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The IRGC now has tens of thousands of proxy militias in these countries armed with big arsenal of weapons that include ballistic missiles, attack drones and anti-ship missiles. Ballistic missiles if positioned in northern Iraq or northern Syria could threaten the southern borders of NATO and the EU. Anti-ship cruise missiles positioned on the Mediterranean coast or the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf would threaten shipping lanes on many major maritime trade routes.
The increased prospects of a regional war in the past few weeks have alerted the international community to the size of threat Iran poses today. It must have also made the Trump Administration realize that it is a showdown the U.S. cannot win alone if it wishes to avoid sliding into a war, or finding itself alone in a military conflict. The U.S. must engage its European and Middle Eastern allies to reach a common strategy and plan to counter Iranian moves and make the economic sanctions more effective. A broad naval alliance or maritime task force must be formed to protect ships sailing through all the strategic passages in the region – especially Hormuz Strait. It should not be about the U.S. facing Iran, but rather about Iran facing a big international alliance led by Washington.
Although many European countries and other world powers have been at odds with Trump over his withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran, better known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), however, Tehran’s recent decision to start suspending clauses of the agreement and taking steps to increase uranium enrichment levels and reserves will end its main remaining point of leverage and drive European countries closer to U.S. position.
Iranian leaders have thus far succeeded in taking well-calculated moves. They managed to cover most of their tracks to the attacks on tankers in Hormuz, and engaged an unmanned aerial vehicle, thus avoid spilling American blood. But every time they carry out a violent attack they run the risk of miscalculation that would leave the U.S. with no option but to retaliate militarily. They must have seen U.S. warplanes and ships mobilize for a strike after the downing of the drone. Hence they realize war, which they know could spell the end of the regime, could still happen even if President Trump wants to avoid it. Thus, their best option is to take advantage of the window of opportunity presented by Trump’s invitation to Iranian leaders to return to the negotiations table to reach a new deal on Iran’s nuclear program and its regional policies. It is also time for Iranian leaders to realize that they are not a super power equal to the U.S. economically and militarily, and their best option out of the current conflict is diplomatic channels. They managed to reach a deal before and they could do it again – if the will exists.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 30 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.