US-Iran tension rises with war of words

Though missile launches breach the spirit of resolution, Iran has test-fired 12 since the N-deal.

American President Donald Trump escalated the war of words with Iran on the February 11 anniversary of the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty by warning President Hassan Rouhani he had “better be careful” with words.

Trump was responding to Rouhani’s call for his country to be treated with respect and said those “using threatening language (against Iran) would regret it.” He was compelled to use tough language because Trump’s threats benefit the hardliners in Tehran rather than the moderate camp which Rouhani heads.

The words exercising Rou­hani were used by Trump’s then national security adviser Mich­ael Flynn who threatened Iran with unspecified retaliation when he put it “on notice” due to its alleged support for the tribal “Houthi” rebellion in Yemen and the test firing of a medium-range missile on January 29. This warning coincided with provocative US, British, French and Australian naval manoeuvres in the Gulf close to Iran’s shores.

Flynn’s threats were based on false accusations. Iran does not extend serious support to the Yemen rebels fighting Saudi Arabia and its tests did not violate the nuclear deal reached with six world powers or breach the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the agreement.

Although Western governments argue missile launches breach the spirit of the resolution, Iran has test-fired 12 such missiles since the nuclear deal was reached, the latest being the first since Trump’s inauguration. This test was clearly meant to measure Trump’s reaction as well as gauge the performance of the missile which bore no warhead. The US responded by imposing cosmetic sanctions on 25 individuals and firms said to be involved in Iran's missile programme.

During the Obama administration, Republican lawmakers argued the US should respond to missile tests by suspending significant US sanctions relief but this would amount to a violation by Washington of the nuclear deal and encourage Iran to cease implementing its commitments.

In a telephone conversation, Trump and Saudi King Salman, reportedly agreed to aggressively enforce the nuclear deal and, ironically, to address “Iran’s destabilising regional activities.” Their collusion is ironic because Iran has carried out the terms of the nuclear deal while the US has obstructed the lifting of sanctions on Iran and the Saudis are the chief destabilising force in West Asia.

The Saudis’ puritan Wahhabi ideology has been adopted by radical jihadis and the kingdom provides men, money and arms for Islamic State and jihadi groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, with supp­ort from Washington, Riyadh is waging a destablising war in Yemen, destroying the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

It may be significant that Iranians make up 48% of the citizens of the seven mainly Muslim countries banned from US entry by Trump’s January 27 edict. The percentage is high because Iran — which has had strained relations with the US since the overthrow of Washington’s ally — the Shah in 1979 — is the largest and most populous of the countries affected. 

There had been the expectation that Iranian-US relations would thaw after the conclusion of the nuclear deal but this did not happen during the Obama administration and cannot be expected under Trump.

Sabre-rattling

He is in sabre-rattling mode while the Republican Congress is preparing a bill which would permit him to wage pre-emptive war on Iran at any time he chooses without consulting the legislature. The stated aim of such a war would be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons although, under the nuclear deal, Tehran has dismantled its nuclear facilities without building any bombs.

An attack on Iran is unlikely to eliminate the country's well protected nuclear research facilities or bring down the regime and could draw retaliation on US forces in Afghan­istan and Iraq as well as strikes on US allies in the Gulf, igniting full-scale war and disrupting the flow of oil to Europe and Asia. Iran’s Lebanese ally Hizbollah could attack Israel.

Russia, which is allied to Iran in Syria, could provide Iran with heavy weaponry and ammunition and logistical backing. War in West Asia would have serious negative consequences for the entire region and the fragile global economy.

It must be hoped Defence Secretary James Mattis, formerly head of US Central Command operating in West Asia, and other cool heads in the administration will prevail over hot heads like Trump and some advisers. Although Mattis has also wrongly accused Iran with being the chief destabilising force in the region, he does not favour aborting the nuclear deal.
An unintended consequence of the war of words between the US and Iran could be the re-election of Rouhani, who was responsible for negotiating the nuclear deal with the aim of ending Iran’s isolation on the international scene. Rival hardliners, who have no candidate who can compete with him in the May poll, see him as the best person to deal with the volatile Trump administration. They do not want to risk outright confrontation if a hardline president, like the offensive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is elected.

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