Iran last week successfully tested a missile, Shahab-3, which flew 1,100 kilometers from the southern part of the country and landed in an area near Tehran, the capital. The test increases tensions in the region. More importantly, it is an act of defiance and a show of power. Iran has been emboldened by what we can call “American cold feet syndrome.”
Initially, on May 5, John Bolton announced the mobilization of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Gulf, citing “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” The administration did not provide details or state what its objectives were. It just promised “unrelenting force” if ever attacked, without giving any specifications about those hypothetical attacks.
However, when Iran shot down a US drone, President Donald Trump tried to find an excuse for his foe and for himself to avoid a retaliatory strike by saying that Iran could have shot it down by mistake. However, the Iranians declared they did it knowingly and on purpose. Facing Iran’s assertiveness, the US prepared a strike, only for Trump to get cold feet 30 minutes before the launch. This showed Iran that it can push the limits with the US. What started as an action to rein in Iran and limit its activities ended up emboldening the regime.
Trump is not the only one who talks big and does not follow through — his predecessor Barack Obama did the same on several occasions. In 2009, when the Green Movement erupted in Iran, Obama encouraged the protesters verbally but left them to be crushed brutally by the police and the Basij. In fact, Obama’s lip service helped the regime label them as traitors and collaborators.
Obama did the same when the Syrian people rose up against their ruthless dictator. The American president said it was time for Bashar al-Assad to leave, as he was standing in the way of the Syrian people’s march toward freedom. This encouraged members of the army to defect, only to be left high and dry by the Obama administration. Betrayed by the US and having no resources, the rebels were easy recruits for the well-funded extremists. Similarly, Obama put red lines on the use of chemical weapons. Shortly after, Assad used them on civilians in Ghouta; the red line became pink and Obama retracted in front of Vladimir Putin.
The problem with the current situation is that it might result in a clash and there is no clear policy on how to handle it. The US might find itself in a situation where it has to strike back and this will lead the region to war. The worst part is that it will be an uncalculated war. To start with, Trump did not outline clear goals for his build-up in the Gulf, and this ambiguity and indecisiveness have emboldened Iran. Tehran also has experience with offering rhetoric that has no policy behind it. In the current case, there is no clear strategy, game plan or objectives.
The US also does not have the right alliances to go after Iran. Trump is exerting a lot of pressure on his allies and putting demands forward while taking a hands-off approach. Facing the skirmishes in the Gulf that are threatening the safety of the maritime routes, Trump showed no interest in getting involved. His attitude does not inspire confidence among allies. He said he has limited interest in what he called a “dangerous” region. Trump said his aims regarding Iran are: “No nuclear weapons and no further sponsoring of terror.” He did not explain what he meant by “sponsoring of terror” or how this aim would be met. One gets the impression that Trump is using vague terms in order to be able to talk his way out of the crisis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reiterated that the UK should protect its own ships following the seizure of a British vessel by the Iranians. Pompeo once promised that he would restore the US State Department’s “swagger.” However, what we see is no swagger at all; we only see an irresponsible and inconsistent superpower scrambling to save face.
The US seems reassured by its weight in world affairs and its influence. It thinks it can threaten whenever it wants and walk away whenever it wants and nothing will happen because the US is too big and too important. However, this is not the case. The strong rhetoric and aggressive threats that only end up with cold feet do not advance the US’ interests in the region. On the contrary, they tarnish its prestige, erode its allies’ confidence and trust, and embolden its foes; and, most importantly, this attitude is behind much of the chaos we see today.