American President Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut military commitments overseas.
Indeed, it is one of his most attractive characteristics. But his attention span is short. He plays a lot of golf, and he does not have the knack of choosing good advisers.
His main domestic advisers on the Middle East are Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, all hawks on Iran.
His closest allies in the region itself are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom can wrap him around their little fingers. And they both want the United States to attack Iran for them.
Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has an extra-strength version of the usual Washington obsession with Iran, as irrational and ineradicable as the parallel obsession with Cuba — the United States will forgive and forget anything except humiliation — but he imagines Iran can be bullied and bluffed into submission. His advisers are not that naive.
This is not to say that Pence, Pompeo or even Bolton prefers war to any other outcome of the current confrontation.
They would rather see the sanctions they have imposed on Iran, which are strangling the economy and causing great hardship, lead to a popular uprising and regime change. Fat chance.
But if the Iranians perversely refuse to overthrow their government, then Trump’s advisers would accept war as the next-best outcome.
Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be involved in manipulating the intelligence to justify such a war in the same way he did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (He called a rather peculiar early morning meeting at CIA headquarters last week.)
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners associated with the not-so-loyal opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government (moderate in the sense that he doesn’t want nukes and does want trade with the West), and they may just have given the American war hawks something to work with.
If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming U.S. military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 per cent of the world’s crude oil and liquefied natural gas out of the Gulf.
The choke point is the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran’s south coast and the United Arab Emirates, where the navigation channels narrow to three nautical miles wide in each direction.
On Sunday, there was a sabotage attack on four merchant ships at anchor off the U.A.E. port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.
So far, everybody is being very coy about what kind of sabotage was involved, but the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the strait if it is attacked.
But it might not be an Iranian group at all. It could be an American or Israeli or Saudi intelligence operation seeking to create a pretext for a U.S. attack on Iran (like the Gulf of Tonkin incident created a pretext for the U.S. to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964). You have to keep an open mind on these things, unless you believe that intelligence agencies never lie.
At any rate, an actual war against Iran now seems much closer than it did last week. The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being reframed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat.
B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are being ostentatiously flown into the Gulf. Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.
If the United States does attack, nobody will help Iran, even though every other signatory to the no-nukes treaty that Trump trashed knows (and says) that Iran has complied with its terms.
And the U.S. would only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who got hurt in the initial round would be Iranians.
But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.
I really don’t think this is what Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).