It is a saw in international relations that states should not make threats against others that they are incapable of carrying out. If international credibility is a currency, then it is rapidly devalued by trying to fight above one’s weight and gaining the reputation of being a blow hard, which the U.S. President’s new National Security Adviser, Mr Bolton, always had difficulty shaking off.
At the moment the U.S. military is engaged to a greater or lesser degree on three fronts: Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Even though President Trump is negotiating disengagement from the first, Afghanistan, it is difficult without retreat looking like a rout. And do the Taliban having any interest at all in saving America’s face? Iraq was the unhappy legacy of the reckless Cheney/Bush régime that desperately needed to lash out and achieve victory somewhere after the humiliation of 9/11. Getting out of Iraq, however, is not possible while the Iranians are still operating a proxy war for predominant influence in its ruins. And Syria is impossible to drop entirely without coming to terms with Russia and Iran as only they can call the Assad government to order. So, one way or another, Iran is at issue.
So where does this leave the current U.S. confrontation with Iran? The Russians have no wish to see yet another front opened in the region by the United States. On the other hand Iran plays a useful role for them in counter-balancing if not undermining American, Israeli and Saudi influence in the Near East. Were the United States to play the long game – which temperamentally it has always found difficult given the frequency of elections – then it can count on economic sanctions remorselessly grinding down the resolve of Iran. But that is the issue: how much patience can the United States sustain?
In an article that appeared today by Anatolii Tsyganok, “Smozhet li Pentagon ‘umirotvorit” Iran”, the author, a retired colonel and a winner of the Svechin prize (Svechin was a leading strategic thinker in his day), reviews possible scenarios for the conduct of war in the Persian Gulf (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 5 July 2019.)
Tsyganok is a sober analyst. His fundamental point is that command of the air would be vital to victory over Iran and that the Russians are in a position to supply Teheran with sufficiently deadly air defence equipment to deny the Americans this crucial precondition. So the chances of a full-scale war against Iran are “close to nill” on his view. He sees Trump, “as an American businessman”, trying to exert pressure on Iran to negotiate on American terms. “What will happen? Only time will tell.”
What this illustrates is that on the Middle Eastern chessboard the Russians are very conscious that they hold some key pieces in just the right places, albeit at enormous cost to themselves. And this alone makes it important for Trump to come to terms with Moscow. Regardless of all the other thorny issues that need resolving in relations elsewhere in the world, it is the Near East that drives the need for negotiation on the part of the Americans. If they are in a hurry for results. And Trump is definitely in a hurry given the election on the horizon next year. Yet if he jumps into bed with Putin, his chances will be ruined.