Sixteen years ago, a new president, George W. Bush, focused his attention on domestic issues, especially tax reduction, not on foreign policy. Outgoing President Bill Clinton warned him that al-Qaida planned more terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, New York’s Trade Towers were collapsing, and the was severely damaged by an al-Qaida hijacked jet.
Now another new president, Donald Trump, focuses on health care and tax reform. But unlike in 2001, his administration is preparing for war.
Three potential flash points are now visible: North Korea, whose missile threats alarmed Japan, South Korea, and U.S.; Russia, whose military incursions into eastern and the Baltic region caused NATO to respond; and Iran, which intends to extend its influence across the Middle East by undermining Arab regimes and installing governments friendly to Tehran.
A military clash in Northeast Asia seems less imminent today than two months ago, following Pyongyang’s missile threats against U.S. bases in Japan. Deployment of major U.S. naval and air power to the region and pressure on China to rein in its belligerent Korean ally have cooled tensions.
Similarly, armed conflict with Russia seems less likely than it did earlier, for two reasons: The U.S. and NATO deployed troops to Poland and three Baltic States to warn Moscow that the tactics it used in Crimea and eastern would be met with force. Russian planes continue to harass NATO forces in the Baltic Sea, but Moscow recently took steps to avoid accidental clashes.
Iran is a different challenge. And unless Tehran changes course, it may trigger armed confrontation with American forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard – paramilitary units that support Shiite forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq – work to undermine pro-American governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Arab Gulf states, and potentially Jordan and Egypt. Revolutionary Guard forces are not under the authority of Iran’s elected government in Tehran, but instead report to the country’s top clerical leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
America maintains two important overseas air and naval bases in the strategically vital Persian Gulf: a large Navy installation at Bahrain and a major Air Force base in Qatar. Iranian speedboats regularly challenge U.S. warships in the Gulf, and one of them may precipitate a clash that results in armed conflict.
Neighboring Iraq, however, is the most dangerous flash point for conflict between Washington and Tehran. This emerges as ISIS is driven from major cities, including the newly liberated Mosul. Iraq’s Shiite militias, bolstered by Iranian special forces, plan to fill the political vacuum left in liberated areas and push Iraq into Tehran’s embrace. Baghdad’s moderate prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will be powerless against this outcome unless Saudi Arabia and other Arab states fully support U.S. actions to support his government and Iraq’s new army.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a congressional committee recently that Iran’s leadership plans to extend “its hegemony” in the Persian Gulf at the expense of Saudi Arabia.
“Our policy toward Iran,” he said, is to “push back on this hegemony” and work “toward supporting those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government,” he said.
Some suggested this is a call for “regime change” in Tehran.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine general with wide experience in Iraq, called Iran “the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”
Most defense experts agree it was a mistake for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Iraq in 2012. Washington reversed course in 2016 and now has 5,000 advisers, trainers, and intelligence specialists in Iraq. They assist Iraq’s military in their drive to oust ISIS from remaining strongholds after Mosul was liberated. Mattis thinks more troops may be needed to stabilize Iraq’s security and reduce the chances that Tehran will prevail in its quest to gain control.
Is the Trump administration preparing for military action against Iran? If diplomacy does not soon deter Tehran, armed conflict should not be ruled out.
Donald Nuechterlein, a political scientist and author, lives near Charlottesville.