Iran has resented the US ever since the CIA and MI6 overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. For its part, the US has wanted vengeance against Iran ever since the Islamic revolution ousted their ally and Israel’s, Mohammad Reza Shah. Iran is the last of the seven countries listed in 2000 by the Neo-conservatives to have their governments overthrown as part of their Project for a New American Century.
The US destabilisation program swung into action on several fronts: in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and Libya, Somalia, and Syria in 2011, and it continues to menace Iran. Already in 1988, the USS Vincennes had shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft. In Operation Infinite Reach, President Clinton in August 1998 struck al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, with cruise missiles, in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Trump took Lebanon, which hardly needed external destabilisation, off his Muslim visa-ban list and replaced it with Yemen, where Iran supported the Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government.
Then in January this year, soon after his inauguration, Biden rescinded his predecessor’s bans on entry to the US (COVID-19 restrictions aside) for immigrants from 13 countries including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Together with Biden’s offer to Iran to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which Trump unilaterally abrogated, this seemed to indicate that the US effort to reform the Middle East one country after another had at last been acknowledged as a disaster and might end with the promised withdrawal of American forces in May now postponed by Biden to September.
If that happens, it might even mean that Iran, though still a US enemy, is no longer on the list for imminent attack. But the Iranian leadership has good reason not to trust any American President, and will not re-negotiate a treaty whose terms it observed. Tehran will want the starvation sanctions imposed by Washington to end first. Iran will continue developing mutually advantageous arrangements with Russia and China, all of them peaceful, and none in breach of international law. But Iranians don’t like being pushed around, and will keep pushing back, as they did by shooting down a US spy plane in Eastern Afghanistan a fortnight after Trump’s assassination of Quds General Suleimani in January 2020. In response to that, an Iranian a professor of nuclear physics was shot dead in his car outside Tehran in November, reportedly by Israelis.
Attack and counter-attack continued throughout the year. Then in April 2021, Western media reported an alarming sequence of exchanges at sea. Israeli special forces reportedly attacked MV Saviz in the Red Sea, a cargo ship said by Iran to be providing security for shipping against pirates. The New York Times reported that Israel notified the US that its forces had caused the limpet mine explosion, and claimed that the ship was used as a base by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. No injuries were reported, but there was considerable damage to the ship.
The lead-up to this event coincided with the early months of the Biden presidency. On 25 February, an Israeli cargo ship MV Helios Ray was hit by several explosions in the Strait of Hormuz, for which Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to blame Iran. On 10 March Shahr E Kord, an Iranian vessel in the Mediterranean, was slightly damaged, for which Iran accused ‘the Zionist regime’. Fifteen days later, a mine or a missile hit an Israeli container ship, Lori, in the Arabian sea. Israel, meanwhile, targeted at least 12 Iranian oil transport ships, with what the Wall Street Journal reported were mines and other weapons.
When the US and Israel want to provoke Iran, they target military leaders, nuclear scientists, and ships. Responsibility for events at sea is readily deniable, and the original attack that sets off a revenge cycle is hard to identify. Back in 2019 the US accused Iran of placing limpet mines on Japanese and Norwegian-owned vessels, which Iran disputed. A British tanker, Stena Impero, was impounded by Iran for two months, while the UK held Grace 1, an Iranian ship loaded with oil for Syria, in Gibraltar. In turn, Iran seized a South Korean tanker, MT Hankuk Chemi, in January 2021.
Under Trump, Iranian retaliation was met with more starvation sanctions. But when an American Administration shows signs of giving way on Iran, Israel steps up its attacks. If Iran agrees to talk about reviving the JCPOA in exchange for the US lifting sanctions, Netanyahu can be expected to gain political support by going into overdrive. This appeared to be happening in advance of recent elections in Israel.
The latest news of a power failure at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, the day after new centrifuges were launched on 10 April, raises further suspicions. In July 2020 an explosion occurred there which Israel was suspected of causing.
Why do incidents in Iran and skirmishes at sea in the Middle East matter to Australia? Because the risk of war against Iran hasn’t gone away; the US always needs a coalition for war; since Vietnam, Australia has always joined American coalitions; and because the Australian people, who have nothing to gain and much to lose from such a war, will have no way of preventing it. As I have argued before, the need to debate and vote in Parliament before another illegal war of aggression starts is more pressing than ever. The problem for Australia is that, once again, our forces could be sent off to fight before we can do anything about it.