Donald Trump has learned that the Middle East is a complex and dangerous place where bellicose threats on Twitter count for little.
The US president has been talking up the threat of war on Iran since he came to office, prompted no doubt by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have long feared the growing Iranian influence in an era of declining American power in the region.
Trump pledged to turn this around, ramping up sanctions and threats of military strikes. Iran has just called his bluff.
In early September the Iranians launched an audacious drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil refineries. It came as a profound shock for the US and its Arab allies.
There is of course a swirl of conspiracy theories as to where the drones were launched, and who claimed responsibility. Yemen insists the strike came from its territory in retaliation for the murderous Saudi air war, while some rumours are circulating that they were launched from Iraq. These are irrelevant. What matters is that the drones punched through Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion dollar air defence system, and exposed just how dangerous it will become to play war with a country that has little to lose.
Iran is facing a crushing barrage of economic sanctions that are having a profound impact on the economy and the lives of ordinary people. But its rulers have calculated, quite rightly, that the West has little stomach for a conflict that will be many times harder than the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Any new war will be waged across the Straits of Hormuz, a choke point some 167 km long, and at one point only 30 km wide, through which passes over a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and a quarter of all oil tankers. Long term strategic plans that have created miles of overland oil pipelines to circumvent the Straits have just been shown to be vulnerable.
The drone strike hit these structures and knocked out some 6 percent of global oil production; any future strikes could cripple oil and gas supplies on a vast scale.
By calling Trump’s bluff, Iran is bringing into play its many strategic advantages, chief among them being that having a vast and highly modern airforce and anti-missile system counts for little in the era of drones and homemade cruise missiles.
The US president himself called off an imminent air strike on Iran following a series of mysterious attacks on tankers earlier this summer that he blamed on Iran.
At the time he said he was worried that a hundred Iranians would be killed. More likely US military commanders informed him that this was a game he could not win, and the stakes were far too high.
Iran’s gamble of upping the stakes has paid off. Just days before the drone strike Trump dumped John Bolton, his hawkish National Security Advisor and the main driver for a new war in the Middle East.
Iran has also taken heart from the divisions that have emerged between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, onetime allies in the cruel war on the Yemen. With no sign of victory, that adventure is rapidly turning into a quagmire, despite the mass starvation and humanitarian disaster it has unleashed on the already impoverished Yemeni people.
Along with its defiance of the US, Iran humiliated Boris Johnson by seizing British oil tankers, effectively holding them hostage in return for one of its ships seized on the way to Syria. It turns out the British navy no longer has enough warships to effectively safeguard its interest in the region. Johnson turned to the EU for military help, but was flatly turned down.
For Iran the arithmetic is relatively simple. It is presenting the West with one option: return to the G5+1 agreement (five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) that eased sanctions in return for capping its nuclear programme concluded in 2015, or it will seize oil tankers, destroy oil infrastructure and plunge the Persian Gulf into severe crisis.
Added to this is the global strategic shift away from the Middle East to China that began under Barack Obama — the so-called “pivot to Asia”. Oil remains important to capitalism, natural gas more so, yet the need for an all-out war to reshape the region has slipped down the list of priorities for imperialism.
War has its own logic, and it would be irresponsible to declare that one will not break out. Yet what the world has discovered over the past few months is that Iran has much to gain, and with no guarantee of victory, the US and its allies have even more to lose.