The threat of war is closer today than at any time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. President Trump seems to be picking a fight with Iran, urged on by his hard-line foreign affairs advisors Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisors, both avidly anti-Iran.
After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran a year ago, relations with Iran have increasingly worsened, with no let-up in sight.
The Iranian government has dabbled in the Gulf region’s political and military affairs for years, so they are no great shakes at promoting peaceful relations. But recent events seem to be nudging them and the U.S. toward direct conflict.
What’s the evidence for increased war fever? A frustrated Iran over the nuclear deal announced that they will revert to producing nuclear materials.
The Trump administration, using unspecified threats from Iran, has mobilized a considerable increase in its military presence in the Persian Gulf and the contingent Arab states in which it has military bases.
On May 2 of this year Trump announced he was sending a U.S. aircraft carrier and its carrier strike force to the area. That strike force consists of three destroyers, a guided missile cruiser, and assorted smaller vessels.
But wait, there’s more. He is sending a Patriot Missile battery, an amphibious warship and an amphibious assault ship as well, both with U.S. Marines on board.
There are already several U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf area. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, an island nation off of Saudi Arabia, with 7,000 troops. On nearby Kuwait there are 13,000 U.S. troops. On Qatar Command Air Base there are 10,000 U.S. troops in addition to B-52 bombers. And there are special forces on the ground in Yemen that no one is supposed to know about.
In Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, there is the largest port of call for the U.S. navy outside of the United States. It has 5,000 troops stationed there.
In short, why does the U.S. need all that new fire power in the Gulf area? To be sure the Straight of Hormuz is a strategic area at the narrow mouth of the Gulf and thus America has had an enduring interest in the Gulf. Fully one-third of all oil trade travels through this area. It is in the “territorial waters” of Iran and as such has a special meaning to the Iranian government.
What is called the “Carter Doctrine” reflects America’s commitment to keep that channel open to international trade. The shipping lane for those huge tankers that shuttle the oil is but two miles wide, however, so it is vulnerable to attacks that might close it for long periods of time.
In the best of times the Gulf area is a potential powder keg. So why light a fuse with provocative acts by the president? Trump claims, with no evidence, that Iran is planning an attack on U.S. troops. Perhaps in Syria or Iraq where Iran has supported rebel troops while America has troops there to advise and support the regimes? (Thus the amphibious ships?)
Iran’s president, Nassan Rouhani, who supported the nuclear deal, is now backing off the agreement that Russia, China, and NATO nations continue to support, while trying to deal with his radical Revolutionary Guards (a large, influential para-military group reflecting Iran’s revolution) as well as anti-west political groups. Might these remaining signature nations help in initiating diplomacy to ease tensions?
Trump is chummy with Russia, which has systematically attacked our democracy; he is in love with North Korea, which continues to test nuclear missiles, why can’t he talk to Iran? Instead Trump uses new, more aggressive, “gunboat diplomacy” to deal with the fiercely nationalistic Iranians, whose dabbling in the area’s troubles, after all, is not new. Meanwhile, conflict seems nearer.
One can’t help but wonder if the president is using that age-old ploy of failing leaders — if troubled at home, instigate a war to boost your popularity.
Richard Fulton is an emeritus professor of political science.