According to a recent confidential report: Both Iran and USA are playing with the red line. The US are pushing Iran to cross it but Iran is also flirting with the red line for internal political reasons, while at the same time not willing to cross it.
If it is almost certain that the US don’t plan to carry out a full-out ground attack on Iranian soil, the prospect of possible targeted US airstrikes on Iranian strategic infrastructures cannot be completely ruled out. Such an attack would probably not trigger a direct military answer from Iran towards the US but rather against its interests in the region and lead to some kind of retaliation by Iran or its proxies in the countries where its influence remains strong through the Shia communities (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrein, Saudi Arabia and even possibly the UAE).
By Jan Helge Kalvik
Defence and Intelligence Norway
We foresee three possible scenario in the region :
* Flirting with the red line will increase on both sides in the coming weeks, until Iran’s deadline of June 30th (more low profile events),
* The US (Trump) decides to cross the red line and Iran retaliates by an increase of destabilization in the region,
* Iran crosses the line or decides to resume its nuclear program after the 30th June ultimatum, leading to a direct military retaliation from US/Israel
The region considers that the first scenario remains, to this date and until the end of June 2019, the most probable one.
- January to August 2018 : Missile attacks by Yemeni Houthis against KSA
Three major attacks carried out by Shia militants from the Yemeni Houthi rebellion carried by firing some thirteen missiles on Saudi territory (January 2018, against Najran and Riyadh ; March 2018, 7 missiles on Riyadh ; August 2018, one missile shot on Jazan). Most of these missiles were intercepted by Saudi Patriot counter-missiles and only caused minor collateral damages.
- On 7th September 2018, mortar attacks were carried out against the US Embassy in Baghdad (Iraq).No victims nor any major damages were reported to have been caused in the attacks and no claims of responsibility were made although Washington clearly suspected the involvement of Iraqi Shia militants supported by Iran. According to the New York Times, an extraordinary meeting of the National Security Council followed this attack, in order to study the military conditions of a possible American retaliation against Iran. John Bolton (current National Security advisor) had strongly preached in favor of a fierce response to Iran, to which General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense at the time, had firmly advised against, underlying the fact that such an attack on Iran would clearly set ablaze the whole region. An immediate military response was finally ruled out but, on September 11th, the White House published a statement indicating that “the United States will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to United States government facilities. America will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives.”
- 6th May 2019 : USA deploys aircraft carrier and bombers to the GulfThe United States, through the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, indicated that they were suspecting Iran to prepare attacks in the Gulf region and sending the Abraham Lincoln carrier warship group as well as B52 bombers to the region, to prepare and be ready to respond to any provocation from Iran in the Gulf.
- 24th April 2019 : Saudi Arabia executed 37 men (one of them being crucified) convicted of terror related crimes or for spying for Iran. Most of the convicted men were Shia militants according to Amnesty International.
- 8th May 2019 : Iran sets a 60 days ultimatum to European countries warning that it will resume its nuclear enrichment program if they do not intervene to prevent new American sanctions on Iran.
- 12th May 2019 : Attacks on foreign oil tanker ships in the Gulf :
On the 12th May 2019, four ships (one Norwegian, one Emirati and 2 Saudi, all oil tankers) suffered minor attacks from unidentified actors, off the territorial waters of the UAE, in front of the Emirati oil terminal of Fujairah (which is one of the seven emirates in the UAE).
Press videos had shown views of the lightly damaged rear hull of the Norwegian ship. It is important to note that these attacks have, according to the official reports of the concerned countries, caused no major damages to the four ships, nor caused any human casualties. Some press news reported the possible use of floating mines. The Emirati authorities confirmed the incidents but didn’t officially accuse any specific actor or any country of these “sabotage attacks” as they were referred to in the UAE.
Although there was no official accusation, all eyes in the region were pointing towards an Iranian involvement in these attacks. The Emirati suspicions of an Iranian involvement were confidentially confirmed by our contacts with the French Embassy in Abu Dhabi who reported us that the Emirati authorities were convinced the attacks were carried out by Iran.
To this day, the Emirati authorities have not provided any details on the modus operandi of the attacks (terrorist-suicide boats carrying explosives or commando attacks carried out by a foreign regular army?). UAE officials have said that details will be provided to the international community and that they are currently carrying out their own investigations. We may see in the days to come an official communication with more details of the attack, once the decision will have been taken, at the highest level, and in close coordination with their political allies (USA and KSA). Emirati Foreign Secretary, Anwar Gargash, had declared a few days after the attacks that the UAE were committed to peace in the region and did not seek military confrontation.
- 14th May 2019 : two drone attacks on an oil pipe-line in Saudi Arabia– On the 14th May 2019, two attacks were carried out by armed drones in the center of Saudi Arabia against the East-West oil pipeline of Aramco, forcing local authorities to interrupt their operations on this major pipeline. No casualties were reported and Saudi authorities indicated that oil production and operations resumed shortly after the incident.- the Shia Yemeni Houthi militia, through its spokesman, Mohamed Abdel Salam, claimed responsibility for the attack indicating it had used seven drones in an answer to “Riyad’s crimes in Yemen”.
- 15th May 2019 : the USA pull out of Iraq their non-essential diplomatic staffUS helicopters were seen taking off throughout the day from the vast U.S. embassy compound near the Tigris River in Baghdad, carrying non-emergency staff out to a military base at Baghdad airport. S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made a surprise visit to Baghdad the week before after U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed Shi’ite militias positioning rockets near bases housing U.S. forces, according to two Iraqi security sources.Iran described the U.S. moves as “psychological warfare”, and a British commander cast doubt on U.S. military concerns about threats to its roughly 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, who have been helping Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State.
- 18 May 2019 : Exxon-Mobil evacuate 30 expatriate engineers from their facilities in Basra, Iraq, to Dubai, as a “temporary precautionary measure”
On the same day, US diplomats warned commercial flights over the Persian Gulf face a risk of being “misidentified” amid simmering tensions between Washington and Iran. An advisory, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and relayed by US diplomatic posts, said the warning came amid “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region”.
- 19 May 2019 : US President Donald Trump issues a stern warning to Iran
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” said President Trump in a tweet on Sunday. “Never threaten the United States again!”
On its side, Iran moved to talk down concerns over the escalating tensions. On Saturday 18/05/19, its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, insisted there was no appetite for war. “There will not be a war since neither we want a war nor does anyone have the illusion they can confront Iran in the region,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told state news agency Irna. On Sunday, Iran’s Fars news agency reported that the commander of the elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Maj Gen Hossein Salami, also said Iran was not seeking a conflict – but added that the US was “afraid of war and don’t have the will for it”.
- 20 May 2019 : Saudi Arabia announced that it had intercepted two missiles headed for Mecca and Jeddah fired by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis, who earlier denied having targeted Islam’s holiest site.
- 21 May 2019 : Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan have briefed Congress indicating that the recent actions taken by the U.S. have deterred Iranian attacks on American forces. Secretary Shanahan said the administration now wanted to prevent further escalation, telling reporters, “We’re not about going to war.” Democrat senators and members of parliament have expressed doubts on the White House’s strategy concerning Iran.
- Friday 24th May 2019, Secretary Shanahan announced the US would be sending an additional 1500 men to the Gulf region as a precautionary measure to reinforce the American military contingent in the zone. This deployment had been approved and announced by President Trump who characterized it as “relatively small” (political observers in the region estimated the reinforcement could have reached between 5000 and 10.000 men). On Friday 24th, President Trump also seemed to downplay the possibility of tensions escalating further. “Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he said.On the same day, Friday 24th of May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also notified the Congress that the President would invoke his emergency authority to sidestep Congress approval to complete a weapons procurement agreement of $ 8 billion, benefitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan.
– the different attacks carried out to this day (mortars on US Embassy in Baghdad, ships attacked in the Gulf, Saudi pipeline attacked by houthi drones), despite the political tensions that they bring in the region, can still all be considered as “low profile” attacks, that are probably carried out by Iran and its proxies to test the determination of the countries in the region (UAE and Saudi Arabia) and especially the determination of the Trump administration to defend its two main Arab allies. These Iranian attacks could also serve internally the purpose to comfort the hard-liners of the Iranian regime, amongst which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who has gained political influence in the country following its military successes in Syria and Iraq. The Iranian authorities know that renewed international sanctions on their oil exports is depriving them of 60% of their total incomes, which is socially and economically unbearable for the population.
– while it appears clearly that the attacks in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia have clearly been carried out by local Shia militias acting as Iranian proxies, the attacks carried against the oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, could, technically speaking, have been prepared and conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Pasdaran), who have several naval units and have proven in the past to be able to conduct such naval commando type attacks. It is also worthy to remind that the Pasdaran (IRGC) have recently been added to the US list of Terrorist Groups and that these attacks could be a response from Iran to the USA for this hostile course of action. The objective of this attack was clearly to send a message while at the same time avoid causing an oil spillage.
– in the context of a probable future renegotiation of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with Iran, Tehran probably intends to show that it will not bend without a price to an unjustified American pressure coming from the Trump administration, even more so having fulfilled all the obligations to which it was submitted to in the frame of this agreement.
– It is true that he US still haven’t forgot the traumatism of their diplomats held hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran back in 1979 as well as the near 600 US special forces killed in Iraq in the past years at the hand of Shia militias controlled by Iran. In this regard and also because of the unpredictability of Trump’s decision, the prospect of an escalation of the crisis in the Gulf, driven by the current US-Iran tensions, cannot be excluded in the days to come. Another aggravating factor is the current alignment of policies of Donald Trump, of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who all seem determined to change the power in Iran and bar, once for all, the country to access the nuclear weapon. But by doing so, the US government is playing the game of the Iranian hard-liners in providing them proof that President Rohani’s policy to negotiate with the West was wrong and bound to fail.
– Despite all these worrying facts, several factors can also bring us to believe that a new open conflict in the region is not an immediate option for any of the actors :
- Iran cannot afford a war today with the USA and its regional allies from the Gulf. Its forces have been engaged at a great cost in the Syrian conflict for the past years, mainly resisting against the territorial expansion of the Sunni extremists of ISIS. This war has had an economic and a human cost on the Iranian army.
- Iran knows that the US troops present in Iraq today are mainly active to support the Iraqi forces (mainly constituted of Shia elements) in fighting the remains of ISIS and Sunni extremist movements.
- The latest declarations of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif tend to indicate that Iran now seeks to deescalate the tensions with the US. Intelligence gathered by the US (reported by the New York Times) showed that Iran had unloaded missiles from at least two small boats in its territorial waters, in what two American officials said was a sign of easing tensions
- The armed forces of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are still extensively active and deployed in Yemen and would be incapable of opening a second major front with Iran. UAE and Saudi forces have also proven the limits of their strength in the Yemeni conflict which has been going on for the past five years, with no close prospect of an end.
- Despite the diplomatic tensions between the two countries, it must be reminded that Iran still has huge economic interests in the UAE, where over 500.000 Iranians reside (8% of total population of the UAE), essentially in Dubai. An estimated 8000 companies in Dubai are considered as backed by Iran or active in business with Iran. In this context, it is clear that neither the UAE, nor Iran, have an interest in engaging in a full confrontation.
- President Trump was partly elected on the promise that he would bring back US soldiers from the different conflict zones in the World. The prospect of initiating a new “Gulf War” one year before the 2020 presidential elections is probably not the message currently sought by the Trump administration. Furthermore, the current policy displayed by President Trump and his hawks has provoked an unprecedented outcry from the American Democrats in Congress, followed by a consequent number of Republican parliamentarians, who have severely criticized Trump’s government for its aggressive policy in the Gulf and its unilateral decision to allow 8 billion dollars’ worth of military expenditures to KSA and UAE, to counter an alleged Iranian threat.
- Confidential observations made by French diplomats stationed in the UAE also indicated that the French authorities were currently more worried of the consequences of a possible impulsive attack carried out by US President Trump against Iran, than by the prospect an unconsidered attack carried out by Iran in the Gulf region. Some UAE officials confirmed this analysis by saying that they considered the Iranian leaders reasonable and intelligent enough not to engage in a war against the US and its allies in the region.