War clouds gather in Persian Gulf

Skand Tayal

Many American influential right wing foreign policy experts and strategic policymakers have not forgotten or forgiven Iran over the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran by the Iranian college student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979 and the subsequent 444-day incarceration of 52 US diplomats and citizens. The repeated shrill cries of destroying this “Great Satan” emanating from the radical Iranian establishment have only added fuel to the burning embers of US-Iran hostility.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged victorious in the recent Israeli elections and is assured of another four-year term. His hostility to Iran’s nuclear programme and vocal opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ring-fencing Iran’s nuclear programme in 2015 is well-known. Prime Minister Netanyahu had openly challenged former President Barack Obama by criticising the deal in an address to the US Congress.
Mr Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress on March 3, 2015, was a direct affront to President Obama. The invitation to Mr Netanyahu was sent by Speaker of the then Republican-controlled House of Representatives John Boehner without consulting President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. The central theme of Mr Netanyahu’s address was to convince the US Congressmen to take concrete and urgent action to stop “Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons”. His statement had two broad arguments. One was that “Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also to the peace of the entire world”. The second was that “the deal (JCPOA) has two major concessions — one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear programme, and two, lifting the restrictions on that programme in about a decade — (the deal) doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb”. Barely concealing his preferred course of action to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure Mr Netanyahu declared to the mesmerised US Congressmen, “Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure does not get you very much… A pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tonnes of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons.”
Mr Netanyahu’s consistent refrain is to plead for a perpetual freeze on Iran’s uranium enrichment and number of centrifuges as a decade, the time horizon of JCPOA, is too brief a period seen in the historical perspective.
Since 2018, Mr Netanyahu has found a soulmate in US President Donald Trump, who is willing to see West Asia and the Gulf through Israeli lenses. There is a certain consistency in President Trump’s unilateral moves defying the reservations of its European allies and ignoring any sober advice. Mr Trump had vociferously denounced the US-Iran nuclear deal in the election campaign. He unilaterally walked out of JCPOA in May 2018 leaving the five other signatories in the lurch. His subsequent decisions to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights occupied in the 1967 war hugely strengthened Mr Netanyahu’s hand in the recent Israeli elections.
Strategic analysts are alarmed at the announcement by the hawkish National Security Advisor, John Bolton, last week that B-52 bombers would be stationed at the US airbase in Qatar and the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group is being deployed in the Persian Gulf in response to some unspecified threats from Iran. Such carrier groups have the technical capacity to jam Iran’s radars and anti-aircraft missile systems in case of any external attack. Mr Bolton added that any attack on the US or its allies “will be met with unrelenting force.” The same John Bolton had authored an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in 2015 with the title, “To stop Iran’s Bombs, Bomb Iran”. In another provocative move, the US has declared Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation.
Mr Netanyahu represents a hardline section of the Israeli polity which has for long pleaded with the US for an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear establishments. In this context, the autobiography of Ehud Barak, Israel’s former Prime Minister (1999-2001) and defence minister (2007-2013), My Country, My Life, is quite revealing. Mr Barak was defence minister in the Netanyahu government in 2009-13 as well. Mr Barak mentions that Mr Netanyahu fervently believes that the Iranian nuclear programme posed an “existential threat” to Israel. Israel seriously prepared for a surgical strike on Iran during 2011-12, as it believed that Mr Obama’s efforts to have a Libya-style denuclearisation deal with Iran would not succeed. The conservative Israeli strategic establishment believed that Iran must not be allowed to cross “the zone of immunity” — a stage when it acquires even limited nuclear weapons capacity. In 2012, the eight-member inner cabinet of Israel could not take the military option as the move was opposed by the then Israeli Army Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who took the position that in spite of preparatory planning, training and military intelligence, Israel “had not yet crossed the threshold of operational capability”.
Maybe the assessment of the Israeli Armed Forces today is different under the aggressive leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israel would also need US cover for electronic countermeasures and midair refueling if it opts for an adventurous course.
President Hassan Rouhani seems to have embarked on a dangerous course by announcing partial withdrawal from the detailed technical provisions of the JCPOA. Iran needs to be very cautious in its response. The US under Trump is quite capable of taking reckless unilateral action. Any show of bravado by Iran can be catastrophic as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein learnt at the cost of his life and regime. A hardliner close to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has reportedly said that “their (US) billion dollar fleet can be destroyed by a single missile”.
Any turmoil in the Persian Gulf will adversely affect the oil prices and would have major negative consequences for India’s fragile economy.
India needs to work closely with all major powers including Russia and China to advise Israel to exercise restraint and urge the European powers to narrow the differences between the US and Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme.