There have been reports that President Trump is less enthusiastic about attacking Iran than his advisers. For the moment, an unanticipated source of sanity. The current US posturing against Iran seems confected. It also seems mad. A US attack on Iran would be blatant and naked aggression. The knock on consequences could have strategic dimensions that are difficult to fully comprehend.
It would most likely shatter NATO. It would force Russia and China to face the question of where to draw the line over rampaging US unilateralism. Iran’s reaction is likely to be felt around its region – which apart from the Middle East (the Western obsession) includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia and also India. Oil supplies will be disrupted. Pro-Iranian forces will engage Israel and Saudi Arabia. Domestically, a war will provide Trump greater opportunities to move towards authoritarianism – it has with every other war time president.
Against Iran the US would be very unlikely to find willing political support from the major NATO members. A NATO contribution to an anti-Iran coalition seems even more improbable. Disagreement exists with the US on the nature of the Iranian threat. Important European NATO members have shown a clear and distinct reluctance for war with Iran. The US’s abrasive approach to its NATO allies and its failure to consult on JPCOA and nuclear weapons has alienated many in Europe.
As their critical interests are threatened Russia and China will need to re-evaluate their strategies towards the US. Russia has significant strategic interests in the wider Middle East area apart from its relationship with Iran. Both Russia and Iran border on the Caspian Sea where Russia commenced construction of a naval base for its fleet at Kaspiysk in Dagestan in 2017. Last year the Caspian Sea littoral states agreed a Caspian Sea Convention to manage the oil and gas rich basin. Under the agreement Russia underwrites the security of the region.
Both Russia and China have significant investments in Iran. Iran is slated to have a pivotal role in China’s Belt and Road initiative. US’s bullying tactics over trade with China is generating pushback. To place important elements of China’s keystone plan for its economic future in jeopardy through igniting an unnecessary conflagration would be a serious further aggravation.
There is a tendency to view Iran from the Israeli or Saudi Arabian perspective. That is looking West. From this vantage point Iran is seen through the lenses of Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf. The spill over from a US-Iran war could ignite or add fuel to conflict in the complex and unstable region bordering Iran’s north and east.
There could be up to 400 million Shia Muslims worldwide. Most of whom live in Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq. Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Yemen have Shia majorities and there are large Shia minorities in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. That is, mostly in Iran’s neighbours. There are between 40 and 50 million Shia in India. Shia comprise more than sixty percent of Iran’s northern neighbour Azerbaijan. While those Shia outside Iran do not represent an ethnic Persian diaspora, sectarian conflict with Sunnis is endemic and often violent in these states.
There are many potential dangerous and violent trajectories involving these states that could result from a US-Iran conflict. Sadly, the fanatical and intolerant in many of these states are always on the verge of sectarian violence. Political stability in the local region is not strong and, despite the Shia-Sunni divergence, Moslems across the world could react adversely against Western interests if the US attacked Iran.
Attempts to isolate Teheran economically might be successful given the US’s enormous financial and economic clout. But if a conflict breaks out it will not just affect Iran. The crucial domestic and strategic interest of many nations will be engaged. Iran’s political, religious, and strategic connections are wide and it may be very difficult to contain any conflict in which it is involved. Iran’s capacity to generate disruptive and subversive acts across the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Sub-continent in response to a US offense could be very significant.
The main and perhaps most damaging result from a major war during the Trump Administration could be a decisive shift in presidential power and the consolidation of an authoritarian trend. Michael Genoves and Robert Spitzer have documented the growth of presidential power from the office that the constitutional drafters envisaged as a ‘presidency of some strength, but little independent power’ to the modern version. Each time a president has succeeded securing a little more permanent independence from Congress it has been a war time president. Thomas Cronin notes,‘Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman and several recent presidents have assumed broader executive powers as they sought to protect the nation’s security’.
President Trump has already shown a willingness to test the strength of the presidency. He has pushed back against the Constitutional oversight powers of the Congress, distorted the emergency powers, attacked the justice and intelligence institutions of government. He has explicitly depicted the judicial system as an arena of political competition weakening further the separation of powers. A war with Iran would provide him with further opportunities to cement his power independent of the Constitution. The legacy of a war with Iran under this Administration could be a greater slide towards authoritarianism in the US. That would be bad for the world.
No responsible Australian government could support or collude with the US in this mad descent into likely global instability, chaos and war.
But probably will.
Mike Scrafton was Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, a senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.