The US decision to send a military task force to the Middle East was described on Sunday by John Bolton, national security adviser to President Donald Trump, as a “clear and unmistakable warning to the Iranian regime” that any attack on the US or its allies would be met with “unrelenting force”. It is not clear what information the US has of imminent, Iran-inspired attacks, if any. The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group, to which Mr Bolton referred, set out for the Mediterranean and the Gulf more than a month ago, as part of a scheduled rotation.
Mr Bolton is a warmonger. Nevertheless, the bellicose tone towards Iran of Trump administration hawks such as Mr Bolton and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, are part of a pushback against the Islamic Republic that probably increases the risk of war. That risk had already shot up after President Trump withdrew unilaterally from the nuclear accord that Iran signed with the US and five other world powers in 2015. Washington thereby unshackled Tehran from a commitment to mothball most of its nuclear programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Until now, Iran had been honouring the deal even though Mr Trump has reimposed sanctions and threatened allies, as well as adversaries, unless they cease doing business with Iran. The US is now escalating further. Recently it listed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — the elite praetorians of the regime at home and its expeditionary force abroad — as a terrorist organisation, the first such outlaw designation of part of another country’s government. Now it has announced the ending of legal waivers to countries that still buy oil and gas from Iran, such as China, India and Turkey, with the stated intention of reducing Iranian oil exports to zero and triggering the collapse of its economy.
These measures alone have replaced a rare triumph of diplomacy with a detonator — in the most combustible region in the world, already on fire with proxy wars. Iran is on one side of these regional conflicts, taking cynical advantage of the sectarian whirlwind loosed across the region by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring turmoil from 2011.
The rekindled schism between Shia and Sunni Islam — championed respectively by Iran and Saudi Arabia — has helped lay waste to much of Iraq and Syria, incubating the five-year reign of terror of Isis in a cross-border proto-state that has now collapsed. But the embers of Sunni resentment at Tehran’s creation of a Shia and Persian axis through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon burn on, even if Iran sees these forward positions in Arab countries as lines of defence.
Israel, too, regards the presence in Syria of the Revolutionary Guard and its militias, alongside the menace of Hizbollah, the Lebanese paramilitaries, as intolerable. Right now, Israel, under the hard right leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, is the spearhead of moves against Iran, intensifying hundreds of air strikes on Iranian and Hizbollah targets inside Syria — it is an undeclared conflict that regularly threatens to turn into an all-out war.
There are other actors in this shadowy picture
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are supporting powerful Syrian Kurdish militia, who managed to take control of north-east Syria with US air cover provided in the fight against Isis. But the Saudis and Emiratis are doing this to hit out at Iran and Turkey — both of whom confront their own Kurdish minorities. They have an additional grievance in Ankara’s case: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, supports the Muslim Brotherhood. They have blockaded Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf emirate, for two years as a Brotherhood nest and Iranian surrogate — even though Qatar hosts the biggest US air base in the region. Adding to the murk and confusion is the still discreet Gulf interest in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar backed Sunni rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed and Russia-supported minority regime. But now, the Saudis and Emiratis look ready to rebuild fences, and even help reconstruct the devastated areas of Syria. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December. The Saudi-led Gulf looks anxious not to repeat the mistake Riyadh made by shunning diplomatic contact with Shia-majority Iraq and abandoning it to Iran. That is, at least, a more thoughtful response than the one Mr Trump urged on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017, to Riyadh — calling on the Saudis to lead a Sunni jihad against Iran. Yet in this part of the world, pushback elicits pushback: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The present flare-up in Gaza, for example, looks to have an Iranian dimension; Tehran’s closest client, Islamic Jihad, seems to have started it by firing into Israel. In north-west Syria, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Assad regime have started an offensive in Idlib, the last Sunni rebel enclave, in disregard of the deal they struck with Turkey last October. In the Middle East, there are many dangerous moving parts, and many immoderate actors who believe in executive action (Messrs Bolton, Pompeo, Netanyahu, Putin, Assad, Erdogan and General Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC commander in Arab territories). And in the US there is a president as erratic as Mr Trump. With a cast like this it is rational to expect mishaps — as Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put it in New York last month. Some wars can and do happen by accident.