With the US walking out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—more commonly known as the Iran accord—we all enter into a heightened zone of danger. Trump is threatening a war on Iran through his statements and Tweets, and now by his actions, assassinating serving Iranian and Iraqi Generals on Iraqi soil. A war in the region threatens its entire oil and shipping infrastructure, and can also take down the entire global economy in its wake.
The international community is complicit by complying with the patently illegal US economic sanctions on Iran, and now with its silence on the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandes. Only UN sanctions are valid international sanctions. The US is able to enforce its domestic law illegally on the rest of the world by virtue of its control over the global financial network: the SWIFT international money transfer platform, the international banking system, global financial institutions, etc. In international law, these economic sanctions are illegal and imposing collective punishment on civilian population.
Recently, the three EU signatories, the UK, France and Germany (EU-3), have lodged a formal complaint to the dispute settlement mechanism that Iran is violating JCPOA, paving the way for snapping back the UN sanctions that had been lifted. This is bad faith. The US under Trump has already pulled out of the JCPOA, and the EU-3 has failed to counter the sanctions as they had committed to Iran. Iran is still unable to sell oil, its main export; the INSTEX, the financial mechanism set up by EU supposedly to bypass the US sanctions, has not seen any transaction with Iran. Effectively, Iran has been put back to a pre 2015 era, or the status prevailing before the JCPOA was signed.
Iran had given notice under JCPOA itself that it would move step-by-step away from its commitments, as permitted under the agreement if a party or parties reimposes sanctions. It would return to fulfilling all its commitments if the signatory states abide by theirs. No agreement can impose only one side to comply, while the other side reneges on its commitments.
Russia and China have limited capacity to beat the US sanctions. So has India, the other big buyer of Iranian oil. All countries have problems in paying Iran except through barter deals. This is impossible in the modern era without duplicating the existing global financial infrastructure independent of the US. The US exercises a stranglehold on the world’s financial structure, and this gives the US sanctions international teeth.
If the US sanctions continue and the rest of the world does nothing to ease Iran’s pain, it will restart the escalatory ladder to war—Iranians ratcheting up their nuclear program, while the US threatens more sanctions and possibly physical attacks on Iran’s nuclear and other infrastructure. Without any off-ramp from such a course, this can only lead to an eventual collision and war. Iran, having faced US and international sanctions for now four decades, is unlikely to submit and give up its nuclear and missile capability. It is fully aware of what happened to Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, after they did.
So why is Trump sounding the drumbeats of war against Iran? Is the endgame regime change through sanctions? Or is it war with Iran and its physical destructions?
Clearly, we cannot predict what an individual thinks or will do. This is particularly true for a President, who lives his life on Twitter and thinks he is still on reality TV, where firing his apprentice, and firing Presidents of other countries have no consequences in the real world.
The larger US game plan is to reduce Iran to a vassal state. The difference between Obama-Clinton, with Trump-Bolton-Pomepeo, is more about tactics and means, then a deeper difference on end goals. Having failed to deter Iran through sanctions, Obama had finally chosen the treaty path, hoping to subvert Iran in the future though peace, trade and a colour revolution. Trump would like to reset the same game that successive US administrations have tried and failed, that is asking Iran to surrender or else!
The US has the capability to inflict economic pain on Iran, creating dissatisfaction with the Iranian political system, particularly among the youth. The youth is not too fond of the stifling Islamic structure that strait jackets opinions and organisations. But Iran’s state structure including its elections still retains legitimacy among the people. More the sanctions and attempts to threaten Iran, more it will lead to nationalist consolidation behind its leaders.
What about the military equation? If the US resorts to force, can Iran retaliate sufficiently for the US to be deterred?
The recent missile strikes by Iran on the US bases in Iraq is a key indicator of how much Iran’s missile prowess has grown. Earlier, we had seen its ability to bring down a behemoth spy drone flying above 60,000 feet. The missile strikes again the two US bases this time has shown a quantum change in the accuracy of Iranian missiles. If Iran’s missiles have improved dramatically as the defence experts argue, so must that of its allies: Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, and the Syrian government forces.
So how good are Iran’s missiles? Iran used short range ballistic missiles and not cruise missiles which it is also known to possess. The short range missiles used were Fateh-110, which has a range of about 300 KM, and Qaim-1 with a range of 800 KM. A defence website in the US sums up its conclusions, that Iran can reliably “put hundreds of kilos of high explosive on targets within 700km of Iran” with decent, if not impressive, accuracy. This view is widely shared by other arms experts. From the Scud era missiles, which had an accuracy of 1-2 kilometres in terms of CEP (circular error probable, the measurement of accuracy of missiles), they have now reached an accuracy of ten to tens of metres CEP.
The other issue is that though the US claimed it is their early warning system that warned them in advance, it appears that Iranians had warned the Iraqi government of the impending strike, and they in turn had warned the US two hours before the strikes. The US soldiers had taken shelter in bunkers, and even then at least 34 of them have been shifted to hospitals in Germany and Kuwait suffering from concussion/brain injury. The payload carried by Iranians were also lower, indicating the possibility that Iran wanted to show its missile prowess, but not cause American casualties.
The US much vaunted air defence seems to be not have been deployed or not used at the two bases that Iran attacked. The Patriot batteries had also failed to defend Aramco against Houthi missiles. Many experts have stated that Patriots are highly over rated, and will not work against the Iranian missiles.
What about Iron Dome or other defence systems that Israel has developed? While they might work against the crude and less sophisticated rockets from Gaza, such systems will be overwhelmed if a large number of missiles with higher accuracy is launched simultaneously. If Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis have missiles similar to Iran’s, Israel, the US allies in the region—Saudis, United Arab Emirates—are at risk of the destruction of their sensitive infrastructure such as chemical and nuclear plants and population centres. Iran with its allies also have the ability to inflict significant damage and casualties on the US bases and ships. The latest Iran strikes show that all of the US bases in the region are within Iran’s strike range. It does appear that Iran’s missile development provides a strategic deterrence against US military power without needing nuclear weapons.
Looking at all these elements, neither side in West Asia—either the US-Israel-Saudi axis or the Iran-Hezbollah-Houthi-Syria alliance—want war and its consequence. The problem is that war often happens by accident; or through unintended consequences of actions when forces are at hair trigger alert. This time it was limited to an unfortunate accident leading to the Ukrainian aircraft being shot down, killing Iranians and Canadian citizens of Iranian descent. Next time it could be a war ship that is struck; or a war-hungry Dr. Strangelove pressing the nuclear trigger; or a wrong intelligence input leading to wrong conclusions, unfolding strike, counter strike and a general war.
Trump’s illegal assassination of General Soleimani, that too on Iraqi soil, has added fuel to the fire lit by his sabotaging of the Iran accord. This time it did not lead to a larger conflagration. At the moment, only the Iranians seem to be the adults in the room wanting peace. But they will not do it at the cost of their right to technology and abandoning their missile deterrence. If the US believes that more pressure will cause Iran to surrender, they have not understood the last four decades of Iran-US history. Those who do not learn from history, are forced to repeat it. But then, what does a real estate agent and a bunch of frat boys who are running the US know about history?