What seemed like a series of low-tension events this week has led to more formal signs of escalation between the US and Iran, which could be a prelude to a sudden deterioration into war.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton has said Iran was “almost certainly” behind the attack of four US-allied oil tankers on May 12. Next, a rocket was fired near the US Embassy in Baghdad on May 19 and Houthi rebels from Yemen escalated attacks on Saudi Arabia.
What followed was: June 14 mortar attacks on Balad Air Base in Iraq; a June 17 rocket attack against a camo in Iraq where US forces are stationed; a June 18 in Mosul; and a June 19 attack on oil facilities in the Basra area.
So will there be war?
The Jerusalem Post has been regularly evaluating the issue, with access to top Israeli and US current and former officials, including US Iran czar Brian Hook, US State Department counterterrorism official Nathan Sales, IDF intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman and ex-Mossad and IDF general Amnon Sofrin.
In some ways, predicting that the outcome will end up being war would make a lot of sense.
There are hard-liners (or – as Wendy Sherman, a former top Obama administration Iran negotiator dubbed them on Wednesday in a New Yorker interview – “hard-hard-liners”) in both the US and Iran who are spoiling for war, now that the nuclear standoff is reaching the later innings of the game.
Some of the recent moves each country has made have made war and the possibility of minor skirmishes escalating more likely. The latest act, Iran’s shooting down of a US drone, may have upped the ante to an all new level and lead to a harsher US response.
But in some ways, predicting that the outcome will end up being war would make no sense. It seems apparent that neither US President Donald Trump nor Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei actually want war.
They are both very much in charge and have both made several recent moves that showed restraint to avoid escalation. So if they do not want war, logic would dictate that there will not end up being a war.
One problem is that both leaders are instinctively proud and risk-takers who are willing to go to the brink in any standoff just to try to get the other side to blink.
A related problem is that both leaders have set processes in motion which are designed to multiply tension on an increasing basis unless something dramatic intervenes. So if neither side blinks and no third party has an innovative compromise idea, the natural result would be gradual deterioration into conflict.
Having been afraid of Trump for some time, the Islamic Republic has been tossing pie in the US president’s face repeatedly now for weeks and is convinced, from the fact that he has uncharacteristically turned the other cheek, that he will eventually back down.
The metaphorical pie has been the alleged multiple rounds of Iranian attacks on US assets or allies, especially as related to the oil market.
Though some Western analysts do not want to publicly jump to conclusions lest they give Trump a pretext for war, when Sherman and US Democrat House Intelligence Committee chief Adam Schiff, as well as England and some German officials, confirm Tehran’s involvement, the only real question is how to understand the Islamic Republic’s actions.
Assuming Iran carried out the most recent naval attacks, it means that it intentionally attacked a Japanese vessel, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting so he could help achieve a diplomatic compromise.
And Iran thought that because doing so was such a crazy idea, it would then succeed in denying its involvement by pointing out how crazy it would be to do such a thing. (Or at least the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps thought so, if you accept the theory that sometimes Iran’s actions are not part of a unanimous strategy.)
This is where the most hard-core Iran hawks in the US return to the point that Iran is a completely irrational messianic theocracy, and that regime change (read: using force) is the only solution.
Sherman would say that it is a partially irrational messianic theocracy, but that, paradoxically, some top Iranian leaders can still be reasoned with in a limited context.
She has suggested that if Trump puts something on the table, a compromise could be reached.
Presumably, this compromise would involve at least partial sanctions relief.
In some ways, this might not be hard for Trump. He has introduced partial tariff relief in every one of his trade wars.
Maybe he could do so now and claim victory, since Iran’s oil imports have been eviscerated and its funding of terrorism in the region has been cut back. He could also say the sanctions relief is temporary, for 90 days or some other set period, in order to reach a bigger deal, with the option of snapping back sanctions if there is no deal.
But then he loses his momentum, and Trump likes his momentum. Also, Trump cannot cut a final deal and remove sanctions permanently, unless the Islamic Republic deals him something new.
The US has asked for: extending the nuclear restrictions; freezing ballistic missile tests; reducing Iranian terrorism in the region; wider International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, to include military facilities; and greater limits on advanced centrifuge research.
Could it live with one or two of those items being added to the deal, without getting some of the rest? Which one or two?
Or maybe a compromise deal is a smaller kick-the-can-down-the-road kind of agreement.
One of the signs that time for diplomacy is running out is that the European Union is finally doing something. England, France and Germany are making a unified loud push to get Iran not to breach the 300 kilogram enriched uranium limit on June 27, as it said it would this past Monday.
Rumors are flying around that after 13 months of stalling, the EU may finally make a significant transaction with Tehran through its INSTEX vehicle to avoid US sanctions.
Will that be enough for Khamenei to claim victory and back off of the June 27 and July 7 deadlines he set for Europe to help out?
Will the US take the gift, sigh in relief that it did not need to directly make a concession and look the other way?
Inject into all of this a significant decision about Iran’s finances and access to international banking, which is coming this Friday from the Financial Action Task Force, a powerful intergovernmental organization which leads global efforts to combat money laundering and terrorism financing.
Will the FATF finally penalize Iran for an extended three-year failure to fully complete the checklist it was assigned to carry out to come into compliance with banking industry standards to avoid criminal transactions? Or will FATF give Tehran more time, as it has before?
Some more context is needed. Israel joined the FATF in December. Add that to the fact that the current FATF presidency is held by the US, with Friday’s meeting and announcement in Orlando, and there had been raised anticipation that this past February’s meeting or this Friday’s meeting would lead to a heavier crackdown on Iran.
FATF’S mixed message that came out in February meant that Tehran was not yet under increased pressure, but it gave Iran a June ultimatum which was more specific and threatening than the typically mild-sounding statements that the organization tends to put out a few times a year.
Since the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, FATF has generally given the Islamic Republic more breathing space, taking its cue from its EU members who are still trying to hold the deal together despite US opposition.
Given this context, does increased Israeli and US influence and the ultimatum about June make a FATF crackdown on Iran finally more likely? Or will concerns about the Islamic Republic’s June 27 and July 7 deadlines lead the FATF to back off again at the last second, under pressure from its EU members?
Incidentally, if the FATF does back off, it will be a clear indication that the EU members will do everything they can to avoid having to confront Iran, even if Khamenei orders more extreme violations of the 2015 nuclear deal on June 27 and July 7.
Those are some scenarios of finding a compromise.
THE GOING-TO-WAR perspective is much more straightforward.
Former Israeli national security chief and major-general Yaakov Amidror has essentially said that the US is getting smacked around and simply needs to decide whether it will punch back or back down. He prefers to punch back and views the region already as being in a state of war.
He is also not worried about Israel being drawn in, believing that Israeli deterrence of its neighbors is far stronger than US deterrence, because the neighbors view the Jewish state as a chronic overreactor.
If the US leans into this perspective, all it needs to do is to fire back at the next Iranian act of aggression, possibly with US Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s idea of eliminating aspects of Iran’s navy or some of its oil refineries.
A bigger escalation would be a targeted strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Any of these acts would likely either quickly lead to a broader war or lead to Tehran suddenly backing off.
There is an ongoing debate about whether such an attack would put Iran back months or up to a few years, but no one says that a onetime attack would end the nuclear threat.
So it seems that even if there is a military conflict, eventually there will need to be a deal.
Whether the US and Iran think that deal will be better or worse than what they can get without military conflict will likely determine whether there will be war.
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