May 16, 2019

In a tweet to President Rouhani in July 2018, President Trump warned: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. Similar threats to Kim Jong-un in 2018 did not result in war with North Korea. Could they now, in Iran?

Erratic, impulsive and largely ignorant of foreign affairs, Trump is being urged to take military action against Iran by his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, driven as he is by their own ferociously aggressive attitude towards that country. It is reasonable to assume that Trump is also motivated by lasting resentment, widespread in the United States, at the sacking of the American Embassy at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979. This prompted him to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, a stupid decision which may frustrate a plan that effectively makes it impossible for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Military action against Iran is made more likely by Trump listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. Since the Guard is an integral part of the Iranian government, this makes the country itself a terrorist organisation.

Bolton and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, accuse Iran of ‘threats’ to Americans and their allies in the Middle East. The threats are unspecified, but no doubt include the true but rather tired accusation that the Revolutionary Guard is in league with Hezbollah, and the patently false assertion that the Revolutionary Guard is allied to al-Qaeda or ISIS.

But Revolutionary Guard activities are unlikely to destabilise the region or cause civilian bloodshed as much as a US strike against Iran. This is made more likely by the imminent arrival in the Persian Gulf of the 113,000 tonne Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier Abraham Lincoln with its 90 aircraft, and a clutch of B-52 bombers. The Abraham Lincoln has form. It launched Operation Iraqi Freedom with a massive blitz on Baghdad in 2003.

If Trump takes the next step toward hostilities, what will it be? It is unlikely that American ground troops will be deployed. Iran is too vast and inhospitable, and its cities too dispersed for effective occupation without substantial casualties. But an aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities is likely, even though Yukio Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has repeatedly declared them free of any activity that could lead to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Iran, he asserts, is subject to the most comprehensive surveillance by weapons inspectors of any country in the world, and is in complete compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.

US Air Force and Navy pilots have a rich list of at least ten targets, including some near major cities including Tehran. They include the Russian-built 1000 MW nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr, begun by Kraftwerk of Germany, completed by Russian technicians, and already the target of Iraqi bombers during the eight-year war; enrichment plants at Ferdow and Natanz; and experimental reactor compexes at Isfahan, Arak and Darkovin. As some of these facilities are surrounded by towns and cities, civilian casualties would undoubtedly occur.

What could Iran do in retaliation? Its military forces have surface to surface missiles and fast torpedo boats to attack US ships. It has frequently threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, the 39 kilometre-wide channel at the eastern end of the Persian Gulf through which 20 percent of the world’s oil supply flows from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iran. Indeed there have already been clashes there between Iranian and US ships in the past. The most notable was in April 1988 when in retaliation for the mining of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, the US Navy sank an Iranian frigate, a gunboat and about six armed speed boats. In December 2011, Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi threatened to close the Straits to naval vessels, but the threat was not carried out.

The range of Iranian options in the event of such an attack are limited. Retaliation against US naval units is almost its only choice. Iran could use asymmetric warfare – swarms of armed speed boats – against US ships if aircraft from the Abraham Lincoln or B-52 bombers strike targets inside Iran as Bolton, Pompeo and hawks in Jerusalem would like.

With memories of the disastrous eight-year war against Iraq between 1980 and 1988 still very much in their minds, the Iranian people certainly do not want to be subject to further attacks. Among citizens I met during a study tour of Iran last year was palpable impatience with Revolutionary Guard activities in Iraq and Syria. Iranian citizens want their sons home, the end of sanctions and return to a decent lifestyle. But there is widespread indignation at Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA and his current bullying tactics. Bombing targets inside Iran by the United States would do more than anything else to unite the 80 million Iranians behind their government.

Meanwhile, it is depressing that in the current Australian election campaign there has been no mention of Australia’s external relations, including the distinct possibility that President Trump will ask us to pull our weight by committing the Australian Defence Force to a campaign against Iran. Australians are entitled to know what the government’s response would be.

Richard Broinowski was deputy head of mission in the Australian Embassy in Tehran in the early 1970s.

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