By Gwynne Dyer
Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut American military commitments overseas. 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 Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom want the United States to attack Iran for them.
Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has the usual Washington obsessions with Iran and 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 PP&B would accept war as the next-best outcome. Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be 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.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners opposed to President Hassan Rouhani’s ‘moderate’ government, and they may just have given the American warhawks something to work with.
If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming US military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 percent of the world’s crude oil 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 UAE port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.
Whatever hit the ships caused holes at the waterline, and the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the Strait if it is attacked. Somehow, an actual war against Iran seems much closer than it did last week.
The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being re-framed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat. B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are ostentatiously flown to Qatar. Mike Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.
If the United States does attack, it will only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who would get hurt in the initial round are Iranians.
But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, maybe an uprising by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.
I really don’t think this is what Donald Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.