Only a united front will thwart Iran’s war games

Only a united front will thwart Iran’s war games

That was another quiet week, wasn’t it?

There were well co-ordinated and accurate missile or armed drone strikes on two key Aramco sites at Abqaiq and Khurais. The Houthis, who have previously limited themselves largely to firing missiles in the general direction of targets in the south of the Kingdom or toward Riyadh, say they were responsible; the attacks were a legitimate act of self-defense. No one really believes them, though those inveterate players of grey-zone games, the Russians, in their usual “Master and Margarita” style, pretend they do — and urge everyone to calm down, while gleefully throwing the promise of more air-defense systems into the bubbling cauldron. The US says it has compelling evidence that the strikes originated in southwest Iran, near the Iraqi border.

Meanwhile Israeli sources continue to make it clear that they regard Iran’s proliferation of advanced missile technology to their allies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as a red line.  In Iraq, where elements of the PMU were the likely origin of an attack on Saudi oil infrastructure in May which the Houthis also claimed (bless!), our old friend Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis goes to Tehran to seek air-defense systems of his own and says he wants to form a PMU air force. 

The always lovable Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, channeling Mr Nyet — the late Andrei Gromyko — simply denies everything.  He says Iran doesn’t want war but if Iran is hit in retaliation for an attack it committed but claims it didn’t, it will mean all-out war.  Which will probably mean Iran and its allies will hijack any available tanker, kidnap any dual — or now indeed single — national and fire missiles at everyone, not just Israel or Saudi Arabia.

And what has been the response of the commentariat and policy establishments in Washington and Brussels? Largely as you’d expect. Blame Trump.

And this is the real deformation— to be so blinded by partisan dislike that you fail to see the wood for the trees of your own prejudice. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA is seen as the root of all the current problems with Iran. But it’s not. It was perfectly reasonable for a new US administration to take a different view of the JCPOA from that of its predecessor, especially as that predecessor in its pursuit of an agreement had deliberately ignored a 40-year pattern of wider Iranian destabilization in the region. And the JCPOA was imperfect from the start. In particular it turned a blind eye to most of Iran’s history of attempted weaponization and in practice softened the international position on Iran’s ballistic missile program. 

I still think withdrawal from the JCPOA was a mistake. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. But it gave us time to make collective choices — if we wished — about how to remedy its imperfections.  And it locked Iran into an international agreement that could be properly monitored. But even so, Trump’s decision to withdraw is not the fundamental problem. Iran — or to be more precise, the senior leadership of the Islamic Republic — is. 

While Iran's foreign minister simply denies everything, the commentariat in Brussels blame Trump. We need collective honesty, plans and action.

Sir John Jenkins

The Israeli intelligence coup last year in exfiltrating data from a Tehran warehouse about previously concealed aspects of the Iranian nuclear programs, continued Iranian attempts to spread their tentacles of influence and control throughout the region, the appointment of a more bellicose IRGC leadership and regular stories about the activities of Qasim Soleimani all demonstrate that this leopard has not changed its spots.

Which is why last week’s attacks shouldn’t come as a surprise. Iran has been doing this sort of stuff in different ways for decades. It’s not really because Trump pulled out of the JCPOA or reimposed sanctions. It’s because this is what the Islamic Republic does — it seeks to intimidate and threaten its neighbors, if possible deniably but, if it can get away with it, then openly.  

Mind you, I largely believe Zarif when he says Iran doesn’t want war, but with one small addition — “on someone else’s terms.” If war comes, Iran would be happy to fight in a way that plays to its own strengths; asymmetrical, grey zone, widely dispersed, damaging to global energy flows, seeking to spread conflict uncontrollably and in particular dragging in Israel — especially at a time of such political uncertainty there — and during a new US presidential campaign. 

Tehran doubtless calculates that it could absorb any initial damage and gain international backing by posing as the victim of US bullying. It could also capitalize on a widespread and misguided sentimentality about Iran in Europe and the US, and profound dislike of some of its Arab neighbors. 

So the answer is to respond robustly (otherwise what’s the point?) but on our own terms, not on those set by Iran. Tehran may have concluded, not without reason, that the US has an incoherent approach under Trump and as a consequence has failed to build the political coalitions either domestically or internationally that are necessary to sustain a protracted confrontation in the Gulf.  It may believe that what used to be US red lines (until President Obama changed the color scheme) are no longer enforceable. Push things as far as they can go, and any opposition will eventually disintegrate, to Tehran’s advantage. Washington will be so desperate for a deal that it will need to offer concessions to achieve one. Iran will emerge victorious once more with its regional position enhanced and its economy free to expand again and relieve some of what is clearly serious and growing popular discontent. 

We don’t have to play that game. But to impose our own, we need strategic patience, an enhanced defensive capacity against Iranian provocations, a much better communications strategy and, if necessary, a willingness to respond ourselves — legitimately and proportionately, but also asymmetrically. Above all we need to come and stick together. And by “we” I mean the EU (of which the UK so far remains an important part), the US, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners.

We need collective honesty, collective plans, collective decisions and collective action. If we do so, we are strong. If we don’t, we aren’t. That has been a major lesson of the past decade in the Middle East and North Africa.  Remedying that, it seems to me, is an urgent task for all our foreign ministries, starting with this week’s meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York.  If we don’t, we shall all be the worse off for our failure.

  • Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015
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