by Robert E. Hunter
Iran shot down a Global Hawk U.S. surveillance drone and crowed about it. President Donald Trump says that he decided to strike back at Iran but called it off with 10 minutes to spare. Thus, the most dangerous international game of “chicken” in recent times came within moments of supreme folly by Iran and the United States, with disastrous consequences across the Middle East and in the global economy.
Leaders on both sides are acting out of pride, arrogance, stubbornness, and stupidity. They have intensified the risk that accident, miscalculation, or even decisions taken by low-level military commanders (in the Iranian case) can plunge everyone into an abyss, to the benefit of no one. The Iranians are led by a sclerotic religious fanatic; the United States has no such excuse. Serious people finally need to intervene. Given that President Trump has surrounded himself with uber-belligerent advisers—National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—no one can have confidence he will do what he is first and foremost required to do as chief executive: to keep the United States safe. That includes keeping the nation out of needless wars that would put the lives of Americans, in and out of the military, in grave jeopardy.
The U.S.-Iranian move towards an insane showdown is only one of two events this week that reveal the incoherent state of U.S. policies toward the Persian Gulf region.
Showdown with Iran
In the Iran case, the first question to ask is why the United States would be flying a surveillance drone in a potentially disputed area. It is not as though there aren’t other ways of acquiring information. And it is not as though the Iranians might be moving troops or other military capacity in ways that signal preparations for open conflict. Most likely, in fact, the decision to fly the drone was not taken in Washington but by some commander in the field.
This is coupled with the U.S. decision to move 1,000 more troops into the region, presumably to increase pressure on Iran. Given that they would be irrelevant to an US-Iranian conflict, which would involve air strikes rather than ground operations, this is not a signal, only noise.
The Iranians are also taking major risks. Why shoot down the U.S. drone, no matter where it was? The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations wrote to the UN Secretary General that “While the Islamic Republic of Iran does not seek war, it … is determined to vigorously defend its land, sea and air.” But it is relying on U.S. forbearance and forgetting that in 1988 the USS Vincennes erroneously shot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 274 people aboard, an overreaction at a time of tensions.
Miscalculation is part of warfare: the “fog of war.” Current tensions have already passed this first stage of conflict. Last week, two crude oil tankers were attacked, not in the Strait of Hormuz (the choke point) but out in the Gulf of Oman. Who did it? Very likely it was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC.) Even if it were some other actor, the blame could credibly be laid at the Iranian doorstep along with the possible result, escalation by miscalculation.
Perhaps neither Iran nor the United States wants an open war. Perhaps the attacks on the oil tankers, one of which has a Japanese owner, were intended as a signal during the visit to Iran of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Coming so soon after Abe’s meeting with President Trump in Washington and despite Trump’s denials, some form of negotiations between Washington and Teheran seemed to be on the horizon. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, with a profit structure that depends on Iran’s isolation from the global economy, may very well have wanted to scotch that possibility, however remote. Others with an interest in forestalling any sort of US-Iranian rapprochement include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.
On the U.S. side, President Trump reportedly told his people to cool the rhetoric, which was a good move, though it was vitiated by his declaration that war was only 10 minutes away. Despite Trump’s most recent decisions, there continues to be a widespread hope that, although the president wants to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, he doesn’t want to see another war in the Middle East, with all its imponderables, not least in domestic politics.
An Incidents at Sea Agreement
Some useful steps might be possible to help keep this game of “chicken” from getting out of hand. Militaries tend to be best at that task, as U.S. and Russian militaries have demonstrated by communicating directly with one another in Syria to “deconflict” their respective air operations. At a more profound level, in May 1972, in the midst of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded an Incidents at Sea Agreement. This happened because both sides realized that ships can bump into one another, and this includes military vessels. Ship drivers are only human, and navigation systems, however sophisticated, should not be relied upon to keep countries from going to war.
It is obviously in the U.S. interest to prevent an incident in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, or the Sea of Oman that could impel the United States to escalate to open war with Iran. Maybe the IRGC, which seems in practical control of Iranian military activities, may not see it that way. Maybe its leaders are all idiots, or the clerical leadership either cares little for Iran’s future or has convinced itself that, for some unknown reason, the United States will blink first. But there are ways of finding out whether Iran would be open at least to an Incidents at Sea agreement (assuming that Washington is also open to it), and militaries from any one of several unengaged countries could quietly explore the possibility with Iranian counterparts.
Many other steps are need to keep the U.S.-Iranian confrontation from getting out of hand and to promote an outcome that makes sense for both sides of the continuing crisis. Such a de-escalation process would be immensely complicated and might not even be possible given the current leaderships in the United States and Iran. But for now, the problem is how to keep things from getting out of hand, to everyone’s detriment.
The Khashoggi Factor
The mess in the region was further complicated this week by the report of UN-mandated special rapporteur Agnes Callamard regarding the slaughter last October of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The UN-sponsored report, which has a high degree of credibility, makes for grisly reading and removes any doubt that the death and dismemberment of Khashoggi was the Saudi intent all along. The report also makes a highly credible case that ultimate responsibility and almost certainly foreknowledge rest with the effective leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
The Saudis must now recognize that MbS is no longer welcome in the United States and almost surely never again will be. If he sets foot here, his visit would rightly be dominated in the media and Congress by Khashoggi, Khashoggi, Khashoggi. Thus, he is a useless interlocutor for what is Saudi Arabia’s most critical foreign relationship, but a relationship no longer as important for the United States now that it has lessened its dependence on Saudi hydrocarbons.
The Trump administration must surely be aware that MbS has become a liability and that turmoil in the U.S.-Saudi relationship also complicates strategic calculations regarding Iran. Put simply, Trump didn’t need this second crisis on top of the first one, and they reinforce one another as problems for the United States.
The Khashoggi affair is, of course, not just a matter of one journalist butchered and one Saudi leader who thought he could deal with impunity with his opponents. It has also shone a spotlight on the war in Yemen, which is among other things a human rights disaster. Iran plays an important role in the conflict, but nothing compared to what the Saudis have been doing, as an extension of ambitions going back several decades. Along with Britain, the United States continues to provide most of the military wherewithal that enables the Saudis to continue their brutal campaign, which includes deliberate attacks on civilians. (The United Kingdom is only slightly behind the United States as arms supplier, and a British court has now ruled that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia need to be carefully reviewed to determine whether they are consistent with British human rights standards.)
Following Khashoggi’s murder, both houses of Congress, including many Republicans as well as Democrats, voted to cut off military supplies to Saudi Arabia. Trump vetoed the legislation, and his veto was sustained. But that did not end the matter. The UN report has once again called attention to the U.S. role in Yemen, leading even one of the Senate’s premier Republican hawks, Lindsey Graham, to say that “While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored.” The Senate then promptly voted to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the House of Representatives will likely follow suit, but probably not by a veto-proof majority.
It is not hard to see why the Trump administration continues to buy into the Saudi military campaign in Yemen. It stems directly from the administration’s obsession with Iran, which is shared by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and some others in the region, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel. But now, with MBS almost surely on a permanent U.S. blacklist, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, faces an existential dilemma. Removing MbS from power and thus caving into the opinion of outsiders, including the United States, would be an affront to Saudi feelings. But keeping MbS in charge increases the risks of major damage to Saudi relations with its leading patron. Maybe there will be a work around to save face on both sides, but none is currently apparent.
The Trump administration needs to rethink U.S. interests in the region, to disenthrall itself from the interests and attitudes of its partners in the region that do not also mesh with U.S. interests, and to start figuring out a new way forward. Certainly, the current course is paying no dividends while keeping the United States tied to others’ interests, consuming resources, potentially putting American lives at risk to no good purpose, and diverting attention from other problems, notably connected to Russia and China.
Many ideas and alternatives are available. This is not rocket science.
But it’s not clear whether Trump will see the necessity of a major course correction. He might well continue to let his senior advisers, notably Bolton and Pompeo, conspire with the worst of the Iranian hardliners to block a reduction of U.S.-Iranian tensions. That course, bordering on insanity in Teheran as well as in Washington, is a recipe for disaster for all concerned.