Defensive Moves or Preparation for War with Iran?
The US has decided to deploy the Israeli Iron Dome Missile Interceptor Systems, purchased in 2019, in Eastern European countries and also in the Gulf countries where the US Central Command (CENTCOM) operates and has established operational military bases. This step coincides with the US decision that Israeljoin CENTCOM (with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrein, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Pakistan and more) following the normalisation of trade and diplomatic relations between several Arab and Islamic countries and Tel Aviv.
Iran considers the transfer of Israeli operational activities from EUCOM to CENTCOM an aggressive move allowing Israel to use all US military bases deployed around the “Islamic Republic”. Iran believes the decision to deploy the Israeli Iron Dome could be a step towards a possible preemptive military strike on Iran. An Israeli attack on selective targets in Iran is possible if the US returns to the nuclear deal unconditionally. Israel could also attack Iran if President Joe Biden slows down a possible return to the nuclear deal and fails to lift all sanctions imposed on Iran. Iran would then respond, first by increasing its uranium enrichment, withdrawing from treaties, preventing inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites and increasing the number and quality of its centrifuges. This expected Iranian move will cross Israel’s red lines. Is the Middle East headed towards war or are these moves ultimately and solely defensive?
An Iranian decision maker said “Iran doesn’t have the intention to attack any US or Israeli targets as long as they don’t start a war or hit selective objectives in Iran. The Iraqi parliament has decided on the withdrawal of all foreign forces, therefore there is no need for further revenge for the US assassination of Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 2020. The (Iranian) bombing of the US base in Ayn al-Assad in Iraq was our response. Nevertheless, we learned how Israel joined CENTCOM military bases surrounding Iran where Israeli interception missiles will be deployed in many Middle Eastern countries. Why would the US deploy these missiles if not for fear of an Iranian bombing? And why would Iran bomb the US bases and Israel unless these show the intention to bomb Iran first? Are the US and the Israelis planning to hit nuclear facilities, thinking they can destroy our capabilities? They can’t”, said the source.
“Iran has shown it has hundreds of underground strategic missiles launchers and silos. This capability was demonstrated during recent manoeuvres aimed at creating deterrence and convincing our enemies to avoid hitting Iran. Because thousands of missiles are spread all over our territory, it is impossible for the US and Israel to destroy all of them. Therefore, Iran can absorb a first hit that will fail to cripple our missile capability, retaliate against all US military bases spread over West Asia, and hit the heart of Israel. Iron Dome showed it can intercept a large number of missiles, which means a few missiles will go through, which is good enough when these missiles carry a destructive warhead. But the Israeli interception system can do very little when flooded with multiple missiles launched simultaneously from different locations”, confirmed the Iranian decision-maker.
Iran may have its apprehensions but that is not the only (pessimistic) scenario the Middle East may have to face in the future. And if the Iranian concern is correct, the risk of heading towards serious escalation is real. However, it is doubtful that the new Biden administration is preparing for a new war in the Middle East. Biden has many priorities, starting from the task of US domestic unification, the damage caused by COVID, issues with China, Russia, and restoring a positive relationship with its allies. That is at least the first part of this current year’s schedule, including the beginning of negotiations with Iran and the presence of US forces in Iraq. This is a heavy agenda, and Iran occupies only a small place in this very busy schedule. Other concerns like Turkey, Syria and Latin America are of course important, but all these and other issues may be less of a priority for the new administration.
However, there are many indications which justify Iranian alarm, starting from the Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s warning (for the attention of the new administration, not to return to the nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015 without modifications. Indeed, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken have both expressed clearly that Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East is dangerous and that Biden will not be in any hurry to rush towards a nuclear deal. The US administration seems to believe the nuclear deal needs re-negotiation involving Middle Eastern partners and addressing the Iranian missile programme and Iran’s allies. These are the exact points that Iran rejects categorically; they were already rejected during the negotiations with Obama prior to 2015. Iran wants the US to lift the harsh sanctions imposed by Trump first, and will not agree to “negotiate under fire” (under sanctions).
It is important for the west to listen to what the leader of the revolution Sayyed Ali Khamenei has said: Iran is not in a hurry to conclude the nuclear deal but wants all sanctions to be lifted. It will not negotiate any additional issues and won’t abandon its friends and allies, with its duty to support them.
It thus seems clear that Biden is not rushing into the nuclear deal and will not lift all sanctions by the 21 of February. Iran has set this date as a deadline for the US to comply with. After this date, unless sanctions are lifted, the parliament has committed to move forward increasing uranium enrichment up to 20% and suspending its voluntary implementation of the Additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), unless sanctions are lifted. It is highly unlikely that Biden will bend to the Iranian ultimatum, to avoid looking weak. However, the US President could eventually lift some of the sanctions imposed by his predecessor (Donald Trump) to show some goodwill and ask for more time to look into the Iranian nuclear deal, on the pretext that domestic priorities required this delay and that time was needed to explore the next step towards Iran.
The bottom line is the fact that the US needs to consult its Middle Eastern allies. However, any soft US approach towards Iran will raise serious alarm in Israel and the Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Many European countries have also requested a re-negotiation to include the Iranian missile programme, particularly the ballistic missiles with a range over 2000 km. However, Europe is not a serious concern because for a long time it has not demonstrated its own independent policy.
An immediate war or hit against Iran’s positions is therefore most unlikely in the near future because the elements for it are not yet in place. However, if the US delays the lifting of sanctions, there is no doubt that Iran will head towards increasing its nuclear capability and other related measures. This will raise the level of tension in the Middle East.
There is also another possibility: Israel and some of the Gulf countries would like to stand as one solid front to prevent Biden from implementing the nuclear deal as it is and lifting all sanctions on Iran. By joining CENTCOM and by having its Iron Dome deployed in the Middle East, Israel and the Gulf countries who normalised their relationship would work through one single operational room. This would force Biden to listen carefully to their fears and take into account their requests, especially if the Gulf countries adopt the idea of an an “Arab NATO” proposed by the Trump administration. The tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been eased which removes one of the main obstacles to form the Arab NATO, if its formation is still on the table.
With the Iron Dome around Iran, Israel has the possibility of intercepting a large number of Iranian missiles before they reach Tel Aviv, in case of war. However, Iran is far from being alone in any future war. Its allies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq have been provided with precision missiles notwithstanding the multiple Israeli attacks in Syria and on the Iraqi-Syrian borders and other parts of the Levant to destroy some of the missile’s warehouses. Even the collaboration between Israel and the US in one operational room won’t stop Hezbollah, Iran’s strongest ally, from flooding Israel with its hundreds of thousands of missiles and hitting thousands of targets prepared in its bank of objectives.
However, Iran has decided to adopt another approach towards Saudi Arabia to counter the US-Israeli move. Both Iranian pragmatists and hardliners understand the potential danger of the US-Israeli moves and would like to see the end of their animosity with the Saudis. It has launched, mainly through Kuwait but also through Oman, Qatar and Russia, an initiative to open a breach in the impasse and advocate for a direct dialogue to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf and address Saudi fears about Iran’s intentions in the region. However, the Saudis wrongly believe the Iranians are asking for the dialogue because Saudi Arabia is expected to be part of the nuclear deal negotiation. The Saudis informed the mediators that Iran should first stop supporting its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. To Iran, the Saudi request is unacceptable because it would mean abandoning its allies.
Iran believes the US will not allow Saudi Arabia to conduct a constructive and direct dialogue with Iran. The Saudis are the first and most generous US arms buyers in the world, and the end of the Saudi-Iran animosity would mean bad business for the US and an end to the justification for many US military bases in the Middle East. Therefore, a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is far from being ripe, and is unlikely to happen in the coming years.
US Central Command is expanding its operational ability in Saudi Arabia to “move forces in any scenario of armed conflict with Iran” and exploring “the industrial port at Yanbu, on the western part of the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea”.
Iran believes – according to the source – that “the Americans have convinced the Saudis that the Persian Gulf is a highly volatile and dangerous area to operate from because of Iran’s expansion plans. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the US expanding its presence in Saudi Arabia and blocking any attempt for the countries of the region to sort out their problems alone. Iran has tested its armed drones and ballistic missiles up to 2000 km. That doesn’t mean we have stopped; our final objectives involve producing defensive weapons to reach much further. Like the Americans, we also have our possible war-scenario to cover all areas where our enemies can be based”, concluded the source.
Only President Biden can take a firm decision regardless of what his allies and administration suggest. Unfortunately, few positive signs are emanating from the Middle East. Biden says he is a Zionist. He has supported Israel for the last 50 years and endlessly repeats that he supports Israel’s security, a very elastic term that means closing an eye to many of Israel’s acts, while offering full US support. However, the Obama-Netanyahu relationship was not that good in the last years of the (former) president’s term. Will Biden succeed in reducing the tension and satisfying Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia? Would he lift all sanctions (theoretically) as Obama did, and sign the nuclear deal as it is without modifications? It may be too soon to tell, but the indications so far are not promising.