10 November 2018

There is a Real Risk of War with Iran

by John Allen Gay

U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal has now ended. President Donald Trump’s administration has chosen to reapply sanctions to the Islamic Republic of Iran six months after announcing America’s exit from the 2015 agreement. This is part of a broader strategic shift by Washington in which strong pressure is to be applied until Tehran makes concessions in twelve areas . This is not the first time America has squeezed Iran. The years before the nuclear deal had seen a similar pressure campaign. We forget just how dangerous those times were. The risk of war was real. Today, the risk is greater. War could spring by accident from one of the many friction points between Iran on one side and America and its regional partners on the other. And the more the pressure strategy works and forces Iran to choose between collapse and surrender, the more Iran will look for alternative paths. One of those paths is escalation. We have entered a perilous new phase.

The last peak in confrontation with Iran, from 2010-2012, included a fairly serious war scare. Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist with strong connections in both the United States and Israel, penned a long feature in the Atlantic about the possibility that Israel would launch a surprise attack on Iran’s nuclear program. In interviews with security bigshots from America, Israel and the Arab world, wrote Goldberg in September 2010, “a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), he reported at the time, had even asked for orders about what to do if its aircraft patrolling the skies of Iraq detected the strike in progress. It later emerged that CENTCOM was so concerned that a surprise attack was in the works that its analysts were monitoring the phases of the moon to suss out when Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak might pull the trigger. CENTCOM’s worries turned out to be well-grounded. A number of top Israeli security professionals at the time clashed with Netanyahu and Barak over orders that they thought indicated an imminent strike.

There was a covert side to this struggle, too. In the cyber realm, the United States and Israel collaborated on the Stuxnet virus, wrecking Iranian centrifuges in 2010. An Iranian answer, the Shamoon virus, hit Saudi Aramco’s computer networks in 2012. In the streets, a string of targeted assassinations from 2010 to early 2012 killed four Iranian nuclear scientists and wounded a fifth.

The attacks, generally thought to have been sponsored by Israel, primarily used “sticky bombs” that motorcyclists attached to the targets’ vehicles. The last killing occurred in January 2012. In February 2012, a similar bomb wounded the wife of the Israeli defense attaché in India. The same day, a bomb was discovered near the Israeli embassy in Georgia. The day after, a band of Iranian nationals in Thailand accidentally blew up their safehouse ; another blew off his legs after a grenade he threw at police took an unlucky bounce. In July, a Hezbollah suicide bomber blew up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, killing eight: himself, the Bulgarian bus driver, four Israeli twenty–something tourists, a pregnant Israeli woman and her unborn child.

The covert conflict could have been much bloodier. Several Iranian plots were thwartedat the same time, most notably a bizarre plan to get Mexican cartels to blow up a Washington, D.C. restaurant and kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. On the other side, we learned just this week that Iran had cracked a covert CIA communications system around this time, too, though we can’t be sure if this had any impact on non-espionage activities.

In the new confrontation with Iran, the drumbeat of violence is steadier and louder. There are rowdy new players adding to the din: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the Saudi side, the recent murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi is a warning sign that they lack the competence and professionalism of the Americans and Israelis that led the charge last time. Sending your own bodyguards to go after a man in your own consulate while his fiancée waits outside is not a great moment in plausible deniability. The Emiratis, meanwhile, had to outsource targeted killings in Yemen to mercenaries. And if the long Saudi war in Yemen is a guide, escalation may be deadly, but not decisive, and could entangle America.

The new round of struggle has focused on Iran’s internal frictions. Over the summer, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Belgium after allegedly giving members of a dissident group a bomb intended to target one of the group’s major meetings. In Iran’s west, an array of Kurdish separatist groups and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been at each other’s throats in recent months. In September, Iran attacked a Kurdish separatist compound in Iraq. Also in September, an attack on an Iranian military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz killed twenty-four. An apparent Iranian revenge plot against Ahvaz separatists was just uncovered in Denmark and Norway, and Iran also launched ballistic missiles into eastern Syria, hitting targets within a few miles of American forces.

No comments: