For a week and a half, tensions between the US and Iran have been growing. It began on Sunday, May 5, when the US announced that it was alarmed by “escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. The result, 10 days later, is that Iran and the US appeared to be heading toward some sort of conflict, perhaps involving Iran’s proxy forces in the region. But both countries want to climb down from this crises.
How did it happen? US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber force would be sent to the Persian Gulf to confront any Iranian threats on May 5. That included a threat against US “maritime and land-based forces,” CNN said. The force deployment was a “message” to Iran.
But some were skeptical as to whether the forces weren’t already destined for deployment anyway. Between May 5 and 10 more US assets would arrive, including four B-52s and eventually a Patriot missile battery and amphibious warfare forces as well.
US statements as the buildup took place presented a clear and consistent message. Bolton warned against any attacks by Iran or its proxies. This included any attacks by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On May 8 US Sen. Marco Rubio also tweeted: “Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are Shia militias equipped, trained and directed by Iran’s IRGC. If they attack our 50,000 [sic] US personnel and/or our facilities in Iraq it should be considered no different than a direct attack.” He later revised the tweet to note it was only 5,000.
What is important in his tweet is not the numbers but the singling out of two powerful Shi’ite militias that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. The US has been seeking to highlight the threat of these units in recent months. The US also designated Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba as a terrorist group in March. Nujaba threatened attacks on the US in Iraq on May 14.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements in recent weeks,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 10. “Any attacks by them or their proxies against US citizens or our interests will be answered with a swift and decisive response.”
Pompeo’s comments came in the context of an unannounced visit to Iraq on May 7. He then changed plans again – instead of going to Moscow, he went to Brussels on May 13, and then to Sochi to meet with his Russian counterpart. The Brussels trip was, at least in part, a response to Iran’s May 9 threats to walk away from the Iran deal in 60 days if European countries didn’t do more for Iran. Pompeo also shared details of Iran’s escalating threats when he went to Brussels. CNN and Reuters reported that he shared Iran intel with European powers.
The icing on the cake for the rising tensions were two May 13 statements. US President Donald Trump said: “If they [Iran] do anything, they will suffer greatly.” In addition, Brian Hook, senior policy adviser to the secretary of state and special representative for Iran, said in Brussels: “Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies. They cannot organize, train and equip their proxies and then expect anyone to believe that they had no role. And so we will not make a distinction between the Iranian government and its proxies.”
MEANWHILE, ON the ground the situation was also escalating.
Four ships were sabotaged in the predawn hours of May 13 in the Gulf of Oman off the UAE’s Fujairah port. The extent of the damage and what caused it were not immediately clear, but an unnamed US official told the press that an initial assessment pointed toward Iran and Iran’s allies. Iran blamed a third country, and one Iranian politician blamed Israel.
Then, on May 14, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen used drones to attack Saudi Arabia, hitting oil facilities. Like the ship sabotage, initial reports emerged from pro-Houthi Al-Masirah TV, and was picked up by Iranian websites.
Although critics of the Trump administration have presented these attacks as “false flags” or “Gulf of Tonkin” conspiracies, the reality is that they emerged not from pro-Trump media, but from pro-Iranian media.
Amid the sabotage in the Gulf of Oman, the US also issued warnings to citizens in Iraq on May 12. Then the State Department ordered nonemergency personnel to leave Iraq on May 15.
Iraqi sources told media that US intelligence had revealed that Iranian-backed Shia militias had placed rockets and missiles in Iraq and that they threatened the US or US allies. Rumors also circulated in the US that Washington was looking over plans to deploy up to 120,000 troops in case of conflict with Iran.
Iranian media has been particularly tight-lipped regarding the escalation. Initially, the head of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, briefed the Iranian parliament on May 12 about the tensions, laying out the IRGC strength along the Persian Gulf and plans to defend the country. But the usual bluster and threats were reduced. Instead, Press TV ran articles on May 15 saying Ayatollah Khamenei had ruled out a war and that Pompeo had said the US didn’t want war either.
The focus now shifts to Iraq, where tensions are rising.
The US has known about Iranian threats in Iraq for years. The last Lead Inspector General Report, ending March 31, which reviews US anti-ISIS operations in Iraq, noted that Shia militias, which are part of Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, had interfered with US-led coalition activities. It noted that in one case a patrol was forced to return to its base after PMF harassment. PMF checkpoints had refused a US unit’s passage. In addition, the Iranian presence in eastern Iraq was so influential it limited the US ability to conduct surveillance operations against ISIS. This clearly points to a major Iranian-backed challenge to the US in Iraq.
Amid the tensions, this challenge may be the next hurdle for Washington’s policy-makers. Trump has waded into this before, saying that the US would use its bases in Iraq to “watch” Iran, in speeches in December and January. In both cases Iraqi politicians condemned the US and said their country should not be a battleground for the US and Iran.