US-Iran conflict could spark Western Pacific
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 Jun , 2019

The US-Iran conflagrating war of words is raging. President Donald Trump has tweeted, “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be greeted with tremendous and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean destruction. No more John Kerry and Obama!” After US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran,    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House “mentally retarded”, saying that it “embraced mental disability” and that the administration  The United States does not know what to do.

Earlier Trump had ordered airstrikes on Iran after Iran downed America’s US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, but called it off just 10 minutes before launch. Trump says he called off the strikes when told “probably” 150 people would die. 150 dead means nothing compared to the collateral damage from US-NATO operations world over. Besides, with Iran’s air defense facilities being targeted, casualties would be Iranian military.  For Trump ordering and stopping the airstrikes, there could be many reasons – whether escalation will help or reducing his bid for second presidential term? And timing – should he attack now or later? US possibly launched a cyber attack instead; its effect is not known though Iran would have expected it and instituted whatever cyber defence it could muster.  

Iran claims it gave multiple warnings to the US before shooting down the Global Hawk when it violated its airspace, but US disputes this. However, if the RQ-4A Global Hawk was shot down ‘outside’ Iranian airspace, why would US not respond,  given Trump’s short temper and the Global Hawk costing US$176 million (2011 price); more than double the price of F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter. Interestingly, the indigenous Iranian missile which shot down the US drone costs only US$ 2500. In 2011, Iran electronically captured a US RQ-171 Sentinel drone, forcing it to land in Iranian Territory and produced an indigenous version within one year. It stands to logic that though technology will continue to drive conflicts, development costs need not dictate the operational outcomes. This was also proved by India’s MiG 21 downing Pakistan’s F-16 in a dogfight in February 2019.

After the Global Hawk downing, Trump had said Iran made a big mistake, but later added it was a new wrinkle in  Iran-US imbroglio. This is akin to US blaming Iran for recent attacks on two tankers  using mines, and Trump later terming them minor. Incidentally, the Japanese operator of one of the tankers said the ship was attacked by a flying object above the waterline), not by a bomb or mine. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal despite IAEA maintaining Iran had not defaulted on the nuclear part. Iran has accused America of economic terrorism; sanctions forcing Iran from dollar to euro for official reporting currency, but Trump wants EU companies to break ranks with Iran.  There are also reports of about US$ 5 billion currency smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan last year.

Trump’s actions against Iran are backed by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel though Israel is not for US-Iran war. Iran has warned Saudi Arabia over attack on its troops, even as Saudis are attacking Yemen and are battling Iran-backed Houthis. Similarly, Israel faces Iran-backed Hamas. UN has found credible evidence linking Saudi prince Salman to the Kashoggi murder and extremism is acknowledged as Saudi Arabia’s top export, but this doesn’t alter US-Saudi Arabia relations with both focused on Iran besides US weapon exports to Saudi Arabia. An interesting development is CIA posthumously apologizing to clear Osama bin-Laden of involvement in 9/11 attacks and offering US$ 18 million restitution to Osama’s family. Being past masters in sub-conventional warfare, America’s record of creating / help raise proxy forces, fighting them, and again re-using them, is well established. This gesture towards Osama’s family could be for using Al Qaeda against Iran, in conjunction other terrorist organizations in Af-Pak region. 

Iran says it would produce more uranium than allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal “unless” it gets European help to offset effects of US sanctions.  Trump has termed it blackmail and ordered another 1000 troops to the Middle East.  In such backdrop the mission of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to mediate between US and Iran was already doomed, with Trump adamant talks must be on his terms. Iran’s hope for European help to offset US sanctions are remote, with Trump determined not to let that happen.  Would Iran go nuclear with Trump declaring he would certainly wage war over Iranian nuclear weapons is the million dollar question. But what does Iran learn from  examples set by the US: Pakistan permitted to go nuclear; Libya destroyed after it gave up nuclear pursuit; Iraq invaded on false pretext of going nuclear; sharing unclassified nuclear knowhow with Saudi Arabia, and; most notably; inability to act against nuclear capable North Korea beyond sanctions.

Pakistan shut its airspace since Indian airstrikes on terror facilities at Balakot in February this year. Closure of airspace impacts economies of both Pakistan and India but hatred for India remains uppermost; akin to former Pak PM ZA Bhutto saying, “We will eat grass but make the bomb”. Meanwhile, Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks are continuing in J&K under fake Pakistani claims it is sharing advance information with India through anonymous phone calls.  Now US has called all countries to stop overflying Iran. US commercial airlines stopped immediately and now India has followed suit. Iran has been in US crosshairs since 2001 as per a General in the US Joint Staff, who also said, “We don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments” ( Stock markets and oil prices have fluctuated amid tensions and each incident in the Gulf. Conflict in the Gulf would disrupt oil supply and economies of Asia. India has deployed warships in Persian Gulf, posted naval personnel on tankers, stopped overflying Pakistan and Iran, and is poised to reduce cess on oil in its upcoming budget.

However,  does the US expect such deliberate disruption of supplies through the Gulf in addition to the US-China trade war, will be taken by China lying down?  It would be naïve to think that while US wages war on Iran, China and Russia will remain fence sitting beyond only supporting Iran. What is actually brewing between high level visits between China, Russia and North Korea should indicate, the reaction to US-Iran conflict could come in Western Pacific. Where, how and in what form is for the US to war-game. Chances of US-China getting directly involved against each other, especially involving mainland of both countries are extremely remote but should that happen, Xi Jinping may actually thank Trump for helping him deflect growing dissent at home, for reducing China’s population, and for both sinking together.

Simple calculus of geopolitics would indicate that should US attack Iran, Western Pacific may hardly remain quiet, show of French, British and German flags in South China Sea notwithstanding. This would also test Trump’s handling of two additional simultaneous fronts in the Indo-Pacific. Trump may be aware of the possibility but given his impulsive nature, what will happen in run up to the next US presidential election slated for November 2020 remains unpredictable.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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One thought on “US-Iran conflict could spark Western Pacific

  1. Trump has proved himself to be an unmitigated moron and a blind fool who deserves to be kicked out of US presidency. He treats Modi, the so called leader of the largest democracy, with utter contempt, while going out of his way to humour and honour North Korean dictator. The joker has turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s depredations on Indian soil. Had Trump had an iota of sense, he would have bombed it to oblivion. Modi, one of the loudest mouths, does not mind being humiliated by the United States, just as Vajpayee was trod upon by Clinton during Kargil, one of the darkest chapters he had scripted with Musharraf, who should have been treated like a war criminal, not royalty.

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