The tensions between Iran on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, seem to be at their highest, since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. After an Iranian attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June, the US nearly responded with aerial bombing, though President Trump ended up choosing restraint. Now, Iran is threatening to seize British ships after British marines took hold of an Iranian-linked tanker delivering oil to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime. Simultaneously, Iran is pushing its luck by breaching the limits on Uranium enrichment set out by the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA).
Though Iran is acting aggressively, its strategic position has never been more undermined. A recent paper by the INSS elaborates on the tensions between Iran and Russia, which were further emphasized by the meeting of the National Security Advisors of Israel, Russia and the U.S. last month – though the Russian representative did emphasize the Russian-Iranian alliance. Israel continues to target Iranian and Hezbollah sites in Syria, despite the stabilization of the Syrian arena.
Economically, Iran is facing extreme pressure following the strengthening of U.S. sanctions, leading the Iranian president to describe this as “the most severe economic challenge in 40 years”.
On the other side of the chess board, the U.S. has never had a security constellation more hawkish on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security advisor John Bolton are both known hawks regarding Iran. Bolton recently called for increased pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and Secretary Pompeo stressed that they were considering “a full range of options” regarding responses to the Iranian attacks on the oil tankers. The recent events between Britain and Iran, which as mentioned garnered further Iranian sabre rattling, are likely to push Britain into a supporting roll for any U.S. operation in Iran. The UK would be an important ally, especially as the EU is persistent in its weakness regarding Iran, despite the latter’s breach of the nuclear deal. The Gulf states will support any U.S. action against Iran, whereas Turkey is likely to remain neutral given its internal political turmoil.
Given these developments, it is not unlikely that a coalition can be formed for a limited military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran’s breach of the JCPOA, alongside its attacks against Gulf oil tankers and threats against British interests, mark it as the aggressor both in terms of international law and public opinion. With fissures in the Iranian-Russian alliance, and Trump’s warm relationship with Vladimir Putin, Russia is unlikely to respond beyond verbal condemnation. Such an operation must be explicitly limited in scope, both to explain the action to the American and global public, and to further reduce the chance of friction with Russia.
Let’s remember what’s at stake: Iran is moving quickly towards a nuclear capability. This is unacceptable for the U.S., who already has one enemy with nuclear weapons, in North Korea. This must be stopped. That such an action would also limit Iran’s influence in the region, while simultaneously bolstering American influence, is an added bonus – and quite an appealing one.
Suggesting a military action is bold, often a sign of hubris: you know how you enter a conflict, not how you will exit it. However, unlimited caution also has its costs, leaving the aggressive actors – such as Iran – to dictate terms. I therefore leave any among you opposed to a limited operation against Iranian nuclear facilities with the following question: if now is not the right time to stop a nuclear Iran, when will the right time be?