Iran – are we at war?
It may have been a fortuitous accident that the scenario used in many of the NATO HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) practice war scenarios centered around the country of Zagros, a fictitious country but not on the maps used, as they had to be real. Zagros, in reality, was Iran, renamed for anonymity purposes after the Zagros mountains that dominate its Western Border with Iraq. With NATO’s largest military power having unilaterally pulled out of the Iran Nuclear deal, what are the chances of a regional or global conflict? What is going on? Philip Ingram MBE a former senior military planner and intelligence officer looks at the wider issues.
With reports of Iranian missiles being fired directly at Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and Israeli response through air strikes, all less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 deal where Iran agreed a long-term deal, what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on its nuclear programme with the 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.
The deal, negotiated under President Obama’s time in the White House came after years of tension over Iran’s reported efforts to use what it referred to as an entirely peaceful nuclear programme, to develop a nuclear weapon. Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
During his election campaign, Trump promised to “tear up the deal on Day One”, it took him another 473 days to fulfill that promise! In October last year, President Trump made a major statement on his Iran Strategy where he outlined how he intended to “confront the Iranian regime’s hostile actions.” He stated that his policy was based on [Iran’s] “continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” but many think it was because Obama had been involved with it.
There is little doubt that President Trump’s assessment of Iran’s interference is accurate, as Iran is engaged in proxy wars in Syria, supporting Bashar al Assad, in Yemen against Saudi Arabia and globally with its ‘sponsorship’ of Hezbollah and support of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Iran’s tentacles have a global influence and their activities are nefarious. With Trumps action and the Iranian immediate reaction in attacking Israeli forces, we are on the cusp of the long-standing proxy wars turning into an intense actual conflict. HQ ARRC, get your Zagros maps out…
However, what is really going on, do we have a new world order emerging, and can Trump’s tactics work?
This is where I have some real issues with the way things are emerging. President Trump is a bully, he uses deliberately inflammatory language and aggressive tactics to achieve his aim. We saw this with the way he ‘dealt’ with North Korea, referring to Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man”, saying his nuclear button was bigger than the North Korean Leaders, sailing 3 US Carrier Groups to the seas around North Korea and increasing US manoeuvres in South Korea whilst deploying sophisticated anti-missile systems.
Trump genuinely believes his approach has caused Kim Jong Un to have a change of heart and suddenly become a cooperative ‘nice guy’. The reality is Kim Jong Un is wholly reliant on China and Xi Jinping in his meetings with Kim Jong Un will have told him to rein his petulant school boy tactics in, but that was only after the N Korean nuclear and missile technologies had been developed to an advanced stage.
Simple logic indicates that President Trump and the rest of the world, in breathing a sigh of relief that the prospect of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula seems to have receded, are seeing what they want to see and missing the answer to the question, why such a change of heart? My analysis in the article “The Russian Bear leading the bald Trump eagle in a game of nuclear Jong” goes some way to examine this.
So, emboldened by his perceived success in North Korea, Trump has embarked on the same tactics with a bigger and thornier problem child, Iran. Like the self-centered petulant bully, he is, Trump sees the only way forward as his way and those in his gang have to continuously, on the surface at least, continue to stroke his sycophantic ego, otherwise, he goes into ‘The Apprentice’ mode and fires them.
Iran, Russia, China, North Korea are all countries that have the luxury of not having to think or plan their strategies in Presidential Terms. They can take a 15 or 20 or 25-year view to an issue that the US President has in his 2, 3 or 4-year plan and this immediately sets the conditions for Trump to be ‘played’ and global groupthink to keep the rest of the world sitting there, blinkered. The best way to wind a bully up is play him before you punch him hard!
We can’t look at what is going on without looking at the Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, Syrian relations and where they fit together. The first thing to note about this group is that there are two of the P5, China, and Russia who historically see the other three members of the P5, a key backbone to NATO, as an alliance with potentially aggressive tendencies against them. It makes sense for Russia and China to have an unholy alliance and with a very large common border, a political friendship is a very cost-effective way of ensuring defence.
China is the elder statesman in this relationship, they have what the other want, very long-term political stability, a growing economy, endless people resources, real global political clout and money, money to buy natural resources, weapons, and favour. It also has an inherent mistrust of anything foreign and in particular western and a mistrust of how western influences are influencing Chinese domestic feeling. China also has a quietly developing global reach in particular through Africa and a developing influence elsewhere.
Russia has a stable leadership but constitutionally it requires a little more manipulation than President Xi enjoys in China. Russia has fantastic weapons technologies and access to natural resources as well as a strategic reach into Europe. Its military has been revamped to provide a capable power projection capability under a long established strategic nuclear umbrella. It needs money and technology, both of which China can provide in exchange for weapons technology, nuclear technology and access to natural resources. A marriage made in heaven.
Iran is fascinating. It remains under the control of what is often referred to as a fanatical regime that seized power in 1979 and has forced an extreme state forced extreme state control of its people and connections with the outside world. It has in effect 3 power blocks all manoeuvring, manipulating and influencing. They are the Religious leadership under Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, also known as the supreme leader with ‘control’ of the military and judiciary, the political leadership under the President of Iran who is Hassan Rouhani, and I deliberately separate out the military and in particular the Quods force, a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for their extraterritorial operations.
Iran has what both Russia and China need and that is oil. Iran needs the ability of China and Russia to break international sanctions, help with technology and military hardware. Iran also has the ability to project its power globally, but this isn’t on any conventional way but is through the use of its backed terror organisations and in particular Hezbollah who supply, train and assist other global terror networks. The influence that brings can ensure peaceful Chinese expansion through Africa with little interference from terror groups, continued pressure on the West through proxy wars and a plausibly deniable outlet for ‘black’ Russian foreign policy needs.
Syria, Russia’s strategic ally in the Mediterranean providing basing, intelligence reach and unique training facilities is the battleground for Iran’s continuation of its proxy war against the Saudis who back the US-led coalition bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The complexities are never ending! The way the Iranian’s influence is through a network of Quods force overt and covert activities, like the rhizomes of Japanese knotweed invading a garden, spreading out underground, destabilising foundations and surfacing when it needs to or can. It works seamlessly with backed terror organisations and once established is very difficult to remove.
Kim Jong Un has been the petulant gang outsider who has thrown every teddy he has around and smashed all of his toys until his potential as a plausibly deniable outlet for other state-sponsored activity was really seen. His petulance was reined in by Xi Jinping, his potential was seen by Putin and that is why Russia has vastly improved North Koreas internet connectivity. They have also probably provided a testing ground for further Russian nuclear warhead testing and tweaks to missile technology. They provide a regime that because of its threatening stance, can be used in any way to manipulate global thinking. Back to The Russian Bear leading the bald Trump eagle in a game of nuclear Jong…….
Now we have a better understanding of the players we have to ask what is Trump achieving by withdrawing from the JCPOA? We in the 24 hrs since he has, we have seen direct attacks on Israeli assets by Iran and Israeli retaliation, we have seen ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia and we have seen Germany and France trying to diplomatically distance themselves from the US position and work out if there were any way to placate Iran with the UK trying to find a position between the US and European position but condemning the US position whilst everyone tries to work out how to salvage the billions of dollars’ worth of deals European companies had recently put in place with Iran. We have seen Iran make a clear statement that it will begin to enrich Uranium at a pace and Saudi Arabia say if Iran gets nuclear weapons then they will too.
If Presidents Putin and Xi wanted anything it would be greater western destabilisation thereby giving greater opportunities for Russian and Chinese influence across the globe. President Trump has handed them that on a plate and stuck a knife into the cracks of international cooperation and is wiggling it hard. The tactics of winding the bully up by playing him before punching him hard is working!
What is clear is this isn’t a proxy war anymore and we are standing is a volatile hydrocarbon filled bath whilst international players throw lighted matches at each other. The world has just become a little more unstable and the doomsday clock has probably clicked a second closer to the cry that all in HQ ARRC looked forward to when fighting in Zagros, “ENDEX” – end of exercise, is closer, but here it, is not time to go home as it could be the end of world order as we know it. Let’s hope that that is not the punch and the real reason is the 15, 20 or 25-year view sees the balance of power shifting to the new alliance.
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE