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Complicated calculations in the US - Iran stand-off

Stemming from historical issues, particularly the US’ recent revocation from the Iran Nuclear Pact and new sanctions, the US and Iran entered a new confrontation. Their own calculations have pushed their relations to the climax of tension with the possibility of a military conflict.

U.S President Donanld Trump and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani

A brief history of relation of the two countries

The Iranian Revolution (also known as the Islamic Revolution) succeeded in 1979 and brought its leader Ruhollah Khomeini to power. After being overthrown, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had carried out several anti-Muslim and pro-Western policies fled to the U.S. To put pressure and force the U.S to return Pahlavi back for trial, on 4th November, 1979, 500 hundred Iranian students broke into the U.S embassy in Tehran and detained 66 people, including 52 U.S citizens and diplomats working in the embassy. R. Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution agreed to release 12 women who were not holding U.S citizenship and 1 person with health problem, but refused to release the remaining hostages despite the UN Resolution calling for Iran to end their illegal siege of the hostages. The hostage crisis seriously affected the relations between the two countries and marked the beginning of a dark chapter in the history of relations between them.

Rescuing the hostages was top priority of President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Washington resorted to several diplomatic attempts to demand for the release of the hostages but all failed. In the end, through mediators, the U.S and Iran reached an agreement to end the crisis. Accordingly, on the Inauguration Day of President Ronald Reagan, 52 U.S hostages were released after 444 days of detention. Though the crisis has been settled, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been broken off ever since.

In reality, the confrontation between the two countries did not stem from the hostage crisis but the overthrow of  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was brought to power by the U.S after a coup in 1953. Under the Pahlavi’s monarchy, Iran was considered an important bastion of the U.S against the Soviet and communism. On the contrary, when coming to power, R. Khomeini tried to abolish the U.S influence in his country and in the region which changed the status quo in the Persian Gulf and in the Muslim world. From a military ally, Iran gradually became a rivalry of the US; from an important chain in the whole external, defense and security strategies of the US, Iran became the “most dangerous risk” in the Middle East. In other words, Iran represents one of the “strategic failures” of the U.S in the Persian Gulf. Several years after, America was unable to not only change the situation but also prevent Iran from becoming a regional power, threatening the power and status of U.S allies in the region, such as: Saudi Arabia and Israel.

 US strategy of isolating Iran

After 1979, in order to contain Iran and reverse the situation, U.S exercised a number of new policies, such as: backing Iraq in their war with Iran (1980 - 1988); listing Iran as part of the “axis of evils” in 2002; calling for the UN to impose a series of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program since 2006. After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 Pact was signed in 2015, the relations between Tehran and Washington was improved a bit. However, the honeymoon did not last long after President Donald Trump came into power in 2017. One of the first things he did as a president was to revoke the JCPOA and imposed new sanctions against Tehran. If Obama’s sanctions were to take Iran into negotiations, Trump’s policies are aimed to subdue the country. This was clearly shown in the 12 demands for negotiating given by the U.S to Iran, including: end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems; withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria, respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias; end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen; end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing which includes closing its heavy water reactor; provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country. These policies are aimed at a regime change, or at least a change in the attitude from Iran. Besides, the US has always tried to weaken Iran’s economy as well as destroy its position of a regional power. In addition, Washington also wants to consolidate the position of Israel as a close ally in the Middle East, and strengthen the ties between Tel Aviv and anti-Iran Arab countries.

What’s more, the U.S also wants to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance - an “Arab NATO” in the word of observers. With the aim of isolating Iran, Washington holds that the “Arab NATO” which includes its partners in the Persian Gulf, such as: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, together with Egypt and Jordan will build a wall against Iranian “invasion”, terrorism, extremism and bring about stability in the Middle East. However, according to analysts, “Arab NATO” is an act of killing many birds with one stone. MESA can be a warning sign that the U.S wants to give to Iran’s allies, such as Russia or Syria who are overwhelming on the Middle East battleground. It can be a message of President Donald Trump to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which he often criticizes as ineffective and unjust, especially when it comes to financial contribution. Whether the idea comes true or not, it certainly complicates the long-destabilized Middle East. Armed races will be triggered even among close allies, not just rivalries which eventually benefit the U.S weapon exporters.

Diplomatic solutions needed

What happens with Iran now is quite similar to the context of Iraq in 2003 with the U.S allegation of Iraq possessing nuclear weapons and calling for comprehensive supervision. While the administration of President Saddam Hussein was just alleged of supporting terrorism, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been designated as terrorists. The Pentagon has deployed its USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, destroyers and about 1,500 troops to the Persian Gulf to counter Iran. If the White House wants to overthrow the present Iran’s political regime, sooner or later they will find a reason for war.

According to the Global Firepower’s Military Strength Ranking, Iran’s Air Force ranks 24 out of 137 countries while the USAF is the most powerful. Iran’s Navy has about the same number of warships as the U.S Navy but the latter’s ones have powerful offensive and defensive capabilities while the former’s base mainly on the wolfpact tactic of high speed missile boats. Nevertheless, Iran is said to have the most ballistic missiles in the Middle East and this is considered the most dangerous weapon of Tehran in the event of a hypothetical clash with the US. As for the U.S, though not possessing ballistic missiles with over 500 km of range due to the restrictions in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed with the Soviet in 1987, they have the cruise missile Tomahawk which is the primary choice for a first strike on Iran. However, U.S can hardly defeat Iran as easily as they did with Iraq in 2003 as according to analysts, Iran can make the U.S possible war costly or bogged down. As soon as war breaks out, Iran can sink some of the ships at the narrowest point (about 3.2 km wide) of the Hormuz Strait, a sea line which transports 30% of the world oil. This is a heavy blow on the oil-dependent pro-US economies in the Middle East. More importantly, Iran has well prepared for asymmetric warfare with both soft and hard powers. Though lacking a modern air force, Iran has developed advanced short, medium and long range missiles which can be targeted at Israel or Dubai (Saudi Arabia) to cause panic in the whole region. Notably, Iran has built a network of proxies in the region, including the Afghan Shiites, Iraq’s Shiite militias, the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Besides, Iran can mobilize thousands of suicide bombers for the common cause of the Shiite Muslims and nationalism.

Therefore, in the event of a war with the US, Iran won’t be easily defeated, and any military attacks into the country can cause unpredictable results. U.S former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, warned that miscalculation of the two countries in the Middle East is a “real risk” now. For this reason, they should exercise self-restrain, shelve their own calculations, and seek diplomatic solutions in order to ease tension and maintain peaceful environment for the region and the world, including the two countries.

Lam Phuong

 

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