MACK WILLIAMS. Iran : Coalition of the less than willing !

Jul 1, 2019

The spectacle of Prime Minister facing the “full court press” from President Trump and his team across the dinner table in Osaka starkly demonstrated how G20 Osaka was to be Morrison’s real initiation to the global arena. As the Iran crisis threatened to intensify it was little surprise that this became a prime focus of Australian media interest – even more than Morrison’s claim that he would be speaking squarely to both Trump and President Xi about the serious risks posed to the global economy by the US:China trade “war”.

Sadly, but so predictably, the Australian media highlighted what they interpreted as Morrison’s support for the US on Iran like the SMH headlined ,“ PM backs Trump on Iran”! From the transcripts Morrison was much more circumspect as required by the lack of any clear articulation yet of what exactly Trump and/or his administration actually intends to do about Iran. – to the contrary with continuing signs of division between Trump and his hardline advisers (who were also at the dinner !). Let alone Morrison being able to state that there had been no request from Trump. So far the message from Trump has been for a new “global coalition” with no explanation of what it might be designed to do and who might be expected to join it. US discussions are currently proceeding on the military threat from Iran with its NATO allies and separately with the major EU countries about the efficacy of economic sanctions – suggesting that the new coalition would need to be active on both fronts but attracting not much enthusiasm for either from the Europeans.

This raises very important issues for Australian policy into the future and is not just simply a gauge of how far we go supinely to support our American allies once again. Perhaps to merit a baseball cap emblazoned with “Make Australia Go (with the US) Again”! Eerie echoes remain: “All the way with LBJ”, WMD, President Bush Junior’s “with us or against us ?” and the Coalition of the Willing to name a few. Thus presenting Morrison with a good first test of the assertion in recent speeches that under his leadership Australia will make its international decisions “solely on the grounds of our national interests”. One would hope that Morrison has been extensively briefed about the complex matrix of issues involved in any decision to support Trump in Iran – some with serious long term implications for Australia. Too often in the past Australia has been left to depend almost exclusively on US intelligence information which might be characterised as “policy driven and designed to support political direction”.With a US President who has so often been disparaging in public of his own intelligence sources, the risks of policy driven framing or interpretation of intelligence reports are extremely high in the current situation. Nor can the fact be ignored that Trump has started formally his re-election campaign. This is already beginning to influence his actions as he reviews his set of electoral promises – a major one being the reduction of US military presence abroad and the concomitant aim being to avoid any new large scale military engagement . This would certainly mitigate against any new military adventure in Iran as has been messages in his recent tweets such as any “war” with Iran being brief and without US ground forces – “obliteration” etc.

It is not immediately clear how well supported Trump’s war fighting assumptions are among the US military establishment.The Pentagon and U.S. Navy have long been concerned about the constraints on naval deployments inside the Persian Gulf which would impede seriously USN manoeuvrability and tactical operations in any confrontation with Iran. The Iranians have also megaphoned that any major USN wartime deployment in the two Gulfs presents them with a very tempting duck shoot with the variety of weaponry they now have at their disposal. In a well-documented major US war game in the Gulf in 2002 the simulated Iran sank multiple large USN ships – which would have been a monumental disaster for the US. Many informed US military experts caution against treating any US attack on Iran as a rerun of the Gulf wars. In recent years, Iran has increased significantly (especially with help from China and Russia) its capability to directly strike US bases and ships in the region with a long range missile force far superior to any adversary the US has faced since WW11. This is coupled with the substantial number of Iranian boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria and the highly efficient terrorist arm it funds elsewhere which is well placed to inflict serious casualties to the assets of the US or any coalition partners. USN studies have also revealed some damaging internal command and control issues in subsequent major operations in the Gulf area – much attributed to the division of responsibility between the various intersecting major US commands.

It is also one thing to fly the flag through the Gulfs and even another to be involved in convoy protection role for the oil tankers. But in any larger military confrontation with Iran almost certainly major USN deployments will be kept away from both Gulfs. This has been illustrated recently by the major USN ships currently on deployment in the area holding exercises in the North Arabian Sea rather than in either Gulf. The carriers could certainly operate their planes and cruise missiles against Iranian targets either from there, the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. Likewise B52 and other bomber flights could be deployed out of the safety of Diego Garcia. Several well-informed American commentators have made the point that that a quick USN redeployment of its major ships out of the Gulf would be a clear sign that a major attack on Iran would probably be in the offing! Certainly there has been significant technological improvement in missile and anti-missile capability on the US side too but defences of USN ships and major US land bases in Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Iraq would all likely be sorely tested by the array of Iranian missile systems deployed along the coast – but more importantly by those from hardened positions in the mountains well inland. The Iranians also now have a very significant capability of small fast patrol boats ( missile mounted and very hard to counter), small submarines (which can operate well in shallow waters inside the Gulfs) , mobile missile launchers and drones. Of course, Iran could not match a major US assault for long but it would likely inflict some serious damage to US assets – ships and personnel – and present a far more challenging situation over the longer term which almost certainly would drag the US ( and its coalition partners) into another costly ground war with little prospect of early exit. None of this surely would appeal to Trump in a pre-election year but the question will be how to avoid it?

Suggestions that Australia could deploy an RAN frigate as we have done to past operations in the Gulfs need to be subjected to extensive consideration. Extreme care would be needed to safeguard smaller naval ships providing convoy protection in the area through to the Arabian Sea. The transition from a phase in which the coalition would be protecting oil tankers (or blockading those from Iran!) could happen very quickly leaving the smaller ships in real danger. Spain has already withdrawn its naval vessel from duties in the Gulf alongside the US. Joining a military coalition against Iran would likely perch Australia at the top of a slippery slope into much more serious military involvement.. The continuing lack of clarity around the attacks on oil tankers and the shooting down of the US drone are hauntingly familiar of the relatively minor incidents and false flag controversies which have sparked major warfare in the past. The Wall Street Journal has just reported that the drone attacks on oil pipelines inside Saudi Arabia which had been claimed by the Houthis in Yemen now appear to have been launched by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq! Which poses the question whether they were also responsible for the earlier oil tanker attacks? And so the conspiracy theories will rage!

The Australian media paid scant attention to a South China Post report (seemingly confirmed) that China had sent a few naval ships to Bandar Abbas a week ago for a small exercise with the Iranian Navy on convoy protection for oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz. This was a timely reminder that China continues not only to resist the US imposed sanctions on Iranian oil (for which it is a major importer) but depend heavily also on Saudi and Iraqi oil which transits the Straits of Hormuz and which would be disrupted critically by any outbreak of war. This adds an important China angle to participation in any war against Iran for potential coalition partners.

Mack Williams a former Ambassador to the Philippines and the Republic of Korea and student at the Royal College of Defence Studies

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