United States At Strategic Crossroads In The Middle East – Analysis

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

The overheated Middle East conflictual environment with the US-Iran adversarial confrontation manifested in diverse domains moved a notch higher in January 2020 to ignition point by United States  in what perceptionaly appears to be United States possible ‘War of Choice’ than a ‘War of Necessity’.

Without being judgemental on United States President Trump’s approval for targeted killing of General Sulemani, Commander of Iran’s IRGC Elite Quds Force by a drone strike while leaving Baghdad Airport in Iraq last weekend has all the potential to set in motion a sequence of war-like development of Iranian retaliations and counter-retaliations by United States.

Iran already suffering the adverse impact of United States political and economic sanctions coupled with covert US strategies to destabilise Iran’s Islamic clerical regimes since 1979 Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini has been seemingly pushed into a corner by the latest US targeted killing of Iran’s iconic military Commander who was the architect of Iran’s military influence and sway in the predominant Shia Crescent of the Northern Tier of the Middle East.

United States has been wittingly or unwittingly been drawn into the sectarian pow struggle between the Sunni Saudi Arabia Military Coalition of which Pakistan is a notable member and the Shia Crescent led by Iran.

Be as it may, what seems to have escaped United States policy establishment and decision-maker’s determinations is that the basis of any potential US war with Iran cannot be the templates of Gulf War I and Gulf War II US military interventions leading to toppling of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq where the Iraqi President had severely limited options of retaliatory actions/strikes against the United States.

Iran is the most powerful regional power in the Middle East where despite US sanctions Iran has developed significant military capabilities including missile warfare and possible nuclear option also—the latter the most crucial concern of United States. In tandem Iran enjoys marked prominence in the Northern Tier Shia Crescent where Iran-backed Shia Militias exercise considerable strike potential against US interests. Over-arching the above is the fanatical obsession of the Shia World with martyrdom which when woven with Iranian open-ended clandestine operations with wide reach acts as a ‘force-multiplier’ for Iran’s retaliatory strikes against United States interests worldwide.

While a military analysis by US military planners solely on appreciation of Iran’s military capabilities would logically suggest that United States has the capability and might to reduce Iran to ashes in case of dangerous retaliation by Iran, the Middle East pattern historically suggests otherwise.

The closest recent example is Syria where United States avowed aim was to topple the Assad Regime where despite seven years or more, United States has been unable to achieve its military aims. Going back to Iraq , the first US efforts to topple Iranian Regimes was the Iraq-Iran War where United States nudged President Saddam Hussein to war with Iran where even the War of Cities by missile warfare by both sides ended in stalemate with no political aims achieved.

In 2020, pointed out in my recent Papers on the Middle East, the United States is an unenviable political and military position of heading a coalition of Sunni Arab nations against a more military powerful and capable Shia Coalition led by Iran and enjoying tacit support of Russia and China and with European Countries not too happy with United States breaking the Six Nation Nuclear Acord with Iran by US President Trump. That and sequence of events from 2018 in the ongoing military US-Iran confrontation all suggest that only a small unintended tinder spark could ignite a possible US-Iran War.

Contextually therefore, 2020 is the most inappropriate military time for US conflict escalation with Iran. The global geopolitical equations, the military turbulence in the Middle East and the domestic political situation within the United States in a US presidential campaign year suggest that since any US-Iran War is not a ‘War of Necessity’ the United States could await conflict escalation with Iran.

It cannot be overlooked that the United States weary of being unable to sway the security environment in the Middle East in its favour in Syrian Civil War, unable to stabilise Iraq which now has common cause with Iran, and its 18 years long embedment in Afghanistan has been trying to extricate itself from the Middle East morass by drawback of US military presence and involvement.

If the above is conceded as United States strategic impulse in 2019 then no military or political logic exists for the United States to escalate military confrontation with Iran where what has been set in motion in January 2020 can only lead to more sizeable diversion of US Military Forces not only as a deterrent against Iranian retaliations but also positioning of sizeable US Military Forces in the Gulf Region for a possible all-out US-Iran War.

United States by above military actions would be repeating its strategic blunders of the first decade of the 21st Century when with its military distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to a serious military vacuum in the Asia Pacific which gave China to grow uninterruptedly into a military and naval power eventually leading to China militarily exercising Full- Spectrum Military Dominance over the South China Sea grievously jeopardising US national security interests in Asia Pacific and those of its Allies.

The above is the most crucial question and dilemma that United States has to overcome as it makes determinations of an all-out war with Iran. Can the Asia Pacific be sacrificed at US political expediencies in the Middle East? What is more significant for the United States National Security interests—- Middle East or the Asia Pacific where the United States faces the spectre of a Rising Military Power like China closing-in in terms of strategic and military equivalence with the United States and already challenging United States military predominance in the Indo Pacific?

Concluding, it needs to be asserted that United States is decidedly at strategic crossroads in the Middle East in 2020 when a crucial decision has to made by US policy establishment as to whether primacy in terms of United States strategic focus should be the Middle East which best can be left to Islamic World to sort out its own affairs or whether the United States should  avoid repeating the lessons of the past two decades where with its strategic distractions with Middle East the United States created a strategic vacuum in Asia Pacific to enable China to spread its expansionist wings?

Dr. Subhash Kapila

Dr Subhash Kapila combines a rich and varied professional experience of Indian Army Brigadier ( Veteran), diplomatic assignments in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan. Served in India's Cabinet Secretariat also. He is a Graduate of Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley, UK, Msc Defence Studies from Madras University and a Doctorate in Strategic Studies from Allahabad University. Papers have been presented by him in International Seminars in Japan,Turkey, Russia and Vietnam. Credited to him are over 1,500 Papers on geopolitical & strategic topical issues and foreign policies of USA, Japan, India, China and Indo Pacific Asia. He has authored two Books : "India's Defence Policies & Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis" and "China-India Military Confrontation: 21st Century Perspectives"

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