The Middle East situation now falls outside the province of rational analytical discourse. Small events might provoke unimaginably large and uncontrollable responses.
International law, norms, and rules are crumbling. The long feared Middle East mayhem seems to loom over the region. Australia’s deployments, alliance, and interests are not aligned.
That Trump is unhinged and a threat to global security is now unchallengeable. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani was not strategic or legal. Trump’s threat to attack 52 targets of ‘a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture’, and to conduct military strikes on Iranian territory ‘perhaps in a disproportionate manner’ with ‘some of that brand new beautiful equipment’; announces that his Administration has gone rogue. Gone is all pretence that the US is the rational global leader in a rules-based international order.
Where Trump is reactive and thoughtless, the Iranians will be patient and prudent, but also determined and strategic. Trump’s mental state will weigh on decision-makers in Teheran. They know a war with the US can only be catastrophic for them. Iran’s leaders have effectively combined adroit diplomacy with nationalism while slowly and deliberately building up influence and power to ensure that another regional war does not threaten their security. They will not be foolish.
Restraining pro-Iranian and Shiite actors beyond their borders from taking actions that would provide Trump with justification for an attack will be a major concern. The proxies and surrogates the Iranians have nurtured throughout the region have the inherent capabilities for independent operations. Teheran would be acutely aware that Trump won’t require hard evidence of the regime’s hand behind any attack on Americans, and the mere fact of an attack would serve as evidence in itself.
The assassination can be used against the US’s interests by turning regional opinion against the US military presence. Not just in states where Iran already has significant influence. Most Arab states also host significant Shiite populations, particularly Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE. War anxiety, will have Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and other Gulf states examining the risks conflict poses to their vulnerable oil and gas infrastructure, therefore their wealth and the survival of their regimes.
Iran is theoretically the strongest military power in the Middle East. Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bigger investors in high tech military equipment, they will undoubtedly be reflecting on the failure of their sophisticated forces to succeed quickly in Yemen. The Iranians and their allies are an incomparably more formidable threat. For Arab states to distance themselves from the US, however, runs the risk of sparking Trump’s ire. All their options are unpalatable. It would be in Iran’s interest to continue to fuel this anxiety.
The assumption in the media is Iran would act without due consideration. It would be deeply underestimating the Iranians to think they weren’t aware of domestic politics in the US and in Europe. They will be monitoring Congressional and public opinion on Trump’s aggression in order to calibrate their words and actions. The US already stood alone internationally with regard to policy on Iran and the assassination has driven a bigger wedge between the US and its main allies. There will be opportunities for the Iranians to turn the assassination into a domestic political negative for Trump and a major strategic setback for the US.
Of course it could all go pear shaped. On either side. Independent actors might carry out lethal attacks on Americans somewhere proclaiming revenge or Trump might just act precipitously and instigate a war with Iran. In any event, the issues confronting the Australian government are very tricky.
There is a current risk of collateral damage to Australian military personnel and civilians integrated with US forces and collocated in embassies and headquarters. However, if the Iranians can be expected to be measured and strategic there is no need for an immediate withdrawal from the region. But planning for a draw down must begin. If a conflict breaks out spontaneously those troops and personnel in theatre will need to be brought out quickly.
Were the US to begin to plan for a major war with Iran, it is highly improbable that other NATO states, or East Asian allies like Japan or South Korea, would partake in such a conflict. The US would not be able to disguise its aggression as an act of the international community rather than that of a failing hegemon unless it could attract some states to a coalition. Would Australia find the strategic independence and political backbone to decline to participate?
Arguably, Australia had a national interest in seeing the end of ISIS. But there is no identifiable national security interest of Australia’s that would be achieved in a war in the Middle east. On the other hand, the belief that Australia’s security is inextricably dependent on US power and access to US technology, and that this requires following the US into every conflict, is a bipartisan article of faith in strategic policy.
Even if no conflict emerges, Australian policy makers need to be thinking hard over the next twelve months. A US election year looms in which an unstable president is seeking re-election under threat of impeachment with an Administration that is becoming more reckless and inept in strategic policy matters. These should in themselves spark a broad and deep review of strategic and alliance policy.
To look beyond a major conflict would be an exercise in idle fantasising. There are too many possibilities. The war could be over quickly as the US surgically takes out Iranian capabilities. It could grind on for years as a series of wars of attrition across the region. Oil and gas infrastructure in the region could be devastated changing the balance of energy power in the world. Or, if no direct military confrontation occurs, the region would lapse into an ongoing state of intolerably high tension. The assassination seems to be a game changer.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.