US President Donald Trump is steadily threading the path of a new US war in the Middle East, having already waged a unilateral economic warfare that in many ways is ‘as bad as war’, as a prelude to a full-scale conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As in past US wars, a great deal of deceptive stage-setting goes hand in hand with war preparation, one of which is threat inflation and implanting a Manichean enemy image of Iran to make the country ripe for a massive onslaught by the colossal US military might in the not so distant future. Another is political theater and minimizing the damage to US image, by pretending that Trump is genuinely interested in diplomacy with Iran, when all the signs suggest that he is not and is simply using the old playbook quite familiar in US history.
Contrary to what has become an article of faith in aspects of the media, we are not witnessing a “Bolton war” in the making, a misnomer that exaggerates Bolton’s role and to some extent exonerates the chief warmonger in the White House, whose biographers tell us he has an old grudge against Iran over the humiliating hostage crisis having a formative influence on him, as well as the death of US soldiers in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, which he has blamed Iran for, not to mention his proxy role for the Saudi and Israeli hawks who have deep influence on him. A sophisticated and non-reductionist theory of coming US war with Iran would need to tie together several causal factors, ranging from personal to institutional, internal and external, with due attention to the “agency-structure” dualism.
One key factor is likely the US mlilitary-industrial complex benefiting from overseas wars, seeing how the stock value of all the major defense contractors such as Northrop has gone up since Trump made his announcement of withdrawing the US from Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s challenge is, of course, how to have a decisive quick victory that would not harm the US and global economy with skyrocketing oil prices and, similar to the Iraq war, turn very messy?
Indeed, it is precisely in addressing this question that comparison with WWII Japan makes more sense than Iraq in some respects. Like Japan, Iran has been subjected to unilateral oil blockade and set up for retaliation that would then make US strike legitimate. Lest we forget, it is now a known fact that the US President Roosevelt was absolutely convinced that the imposition of oil sanctions on Japan would lead to war. Thus, irrespective of whether or not Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack — and many historians suggest he did — the more important fact is that US indirectly instigated the war with Japan by essentially threatening its economic survival.
Similarly, with Iran today, Trump and his hawkish advisers constantly harp the theme that US is not looking to start a war with Iran and or that US does not want war with Iran, when in fact they have created the conditions for a war, by pressing Iran against the wall and calculating that Iranians will resist as best as they can including by using their asymmetrical hard power and certain logistical advantages, to which the US would then respond with overwhelming force.
In this scenario there would be some “sunk costs,” some pains inflicted on US and some of its regional allies, but the end result, in defeating an ardent enemy and scoring big on geopolitical front would be worth the sacrifices. A big question is, what happens if US’s calculations turn out to be incorrect and Iran somehow manages to get the US bogged down in a (semi) protracted war with significant casualties as well as damages to US’s prestige by, for example, sinking some US warships?
According to New York Times, the Trump administration has made contingency plans to dispatch some 120,000 troops to confront Iran in a war scenario and, as a matter of fact, when asked about it Trump stated that he may actually send a lot more than that. Indeed, to defeat the ‘regional superpower’ Iran Mr. Trump would need more like a half million troops, requiring the imposition of draft.
But, the problem is that Trump would be waging an unpopular war lacking international support and would likely have a hard time selling it to the voters come next election, facing the possibility of defeat, unless he can somehow shorten the war and bring Iran to its knees quickly — which he can do only by what FDR did to Japan, that is, by nuking them.
Given Trump’s trigger-happy tendency and his past statements in favor of using nuclear bombs, as well as long-standing US nuclear strategy that foresees a role for “smart” tactical weapons in conventional theaters, the nightmare scenario of a limited nuclear warfare against Iran is hardly far-fetched.
This would be a dread come true for one of Trump’s biggest donors, the “nuke Iran” Sheldon Adelson, as well as for US military hawks who have no qualm about dropping a few nukes on Iranians, who have dared to make trouble for US hegemony for 40 years. In that case, US can gain mastery of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, dispossess Iran of the three strategic islands of Abu Mussa, Little and Big Tunb, and thus reassert its domination of the Middle East. There would be some cries of outrage in the international community but in the end with much help by the compliant US media, the world would move on just as it did after US dropped the bombs on Japan. Iran has no strategic alliance with any major power and neither China nor Russia would risk war with US over Iran.
Needless to say, this would be bad omen especially for Russia, which has so far managed to keep NATO out of Caspian Sea region, but it is a sure bet that with the demise of Islamic Republic in a US war, that would quickly change and the NATO ring around Russia would tighten.
To conclude, the Japan analogy is a limited one since unlike Japan, Iran has not invaded any country and yet has been repeatedly invaded in its modern history. The purpose of drawing analogies is heuristic in value and should not occlude the major differences. Still, notwithstanding the above-said, it fits the present US-Iran circumstance more than the Iraq war analogy.
The risk of a limited US nuclear strike on Iran is real and represents a clear and present danger not only to Iran but also global peace and security.
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