Over the past couple of weeks, Iran has flexed its muscles. On July 19, the IRGC intercepted and seized a U.K.-flagged commercial vessel in the Straits of Hormuz. Five days later, Iran tested and launched a Shahab-3 medium-range missile.
For further insight on underlying developments with Iran, DC Insider spoke with two prominent Middle East experts in Washington: Matt Brodsky, Senior Fellow at the Security Studies Group, and David Des Roches, former DoD Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
What message was Iran trying to send with their missile ‘test’?
Brodsky: “The goal was to make Europe nervous so that it would be more accommodating in the Vienna talks. Iran was hoping to draw out more European concessions to ease the financial burden that came as a result of the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions. Of course, Iran’s malign activities across the region and beyond were steadily increasing long before President Trump came into office and certainly before he withdrew from most of the nuclear agreement a little over a year ago. However, the fact that the regime in Tehran reportedly conducted this test entirely within Iran’s borders may also demonstrate it is keen to avoid a military escalation involving the United States. After all, one of the regime’s goals is to convince the world that it is President Trump who is the agent of chaos – not itself.”
the fact that the regime in Tehran reportedly conducted this test entirely within Iran’s borders may also demonstrate it is keen to avoid a military escalation involving the United States | Matt Brodsky
Des Roches: “When Iran feels that the world community is not yielding to its demands, it generally pursues several courses of action. One is to take hostages, one is to direct its proxies (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen) to attack outside interests, one is to disrupt civilian shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, and one is to trumpet its WMD capability (by announcing increased uranium enrichment or missile tests). Iran has taken all these steps in recent weeks in reaction to the US "maximum pressure campaign." The missile test should be seen in this light.”
When Iran feels that the world community is not yielding to its demands, it generally pursues several courses of action | David Des Roches
Just this week, Israel also conducted a missile ‘test’... Was this in reaction to Iran’s missile ‘test’?
Brodsky: “The two cases are apples and oranges. The test Israel conducted in Alaska with the U.S. was long-planned and the system was the Arrow-3, which is a long-range missile defense system. Iran was testing and continues to test ballistic missiles that threaten the region and could one day carry a nuclear payload. So Iran is conducting tests to make war further from its borders, while Israel is invested in defending against those threats.”
Des Roches: “The Israeli test was of a missile interceptor, not an attack missile. The Iranian test was of an offensive missile. Could be [in reaction], but I doubt it. It's a long-standing program and there's been routine tests for years. Perhaps it was publicized more.”
Could Israel engage in missile warfare with Iran without having the US stamp of approval?
Brodsky: “In general, Israel will act to protect its interests and defend its people no matter the diplomatic drama that would ensue. That is the first priority of any elected government. It’s true that the U.S. could pressure Israel to make certain moves but it isn’t in America’s interest to do so when it comes to Iran and its proxies.
The fact is that Israel doesn’t want to own the nuclear issue with Iran. It is an issue that concerns the world. Thankfully, the Trump administration is taking the lead in re-establishing leverage with the regime, which is something Team Obama traded away for a deal that doesn’t prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
From Israel’s perspective, it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and they have multiple tools to address that threat, including cyber and covert measures. They are happy to have a friend in the current American president who is pledged to the same goal vis-à-vis Iran as they are.”
Des Roches: “Israel would be at tremendous risk in a general exchange of offensive missiles. Given Israel's small area, it would not want to initiate a full-on exchange of missiles. The most Israel might consider would be a limited strike on an extremely high-value target, such as a nuclear warhead plant. And that would be very risky. Not something Israel would seek out.”
The Trump administration made it blatantly clear that it does not and will not condone similar acts from Iran in the future. Why such emphasis on limiting missile activity on Iran and not other countries in the region? e.g. UAE, KSA?
Israel would be at tremendous risk in a general exchange of offensive missiles | Des Roches
Brodsky: “The problem is that the JCPOA and accompanying UNSC resolution don’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its rogue behavior. Tehran has openly and repeatedly pledged to wipe Israel off the map, has aided Syria’s Assad in butchering a half-million people, is waging a war in Yemen with its proxy, increasingly controls the levers of power in Iraq, and holds the Lebanese state hostage with Hezbollah. So Iran’s behavior isn’t theoretical; it is taking place as we speak. Expansionist and revisionists regimes like that in Iran, which is pledged to export its revolution, present a very clear and present danger that must be addressed.”
Tehran has openly and repeatedly pledged to wipe Israel off the map, has aided Syria’s Assad in butchering a half-million people, is waging a war in Yemen with its proxy, increasingly controls the levers of power in Iraq, and holds the Lebanese state hostage with Hezbollah | Brodsky
Des Roches: “UAE and KSA don't have domestic production of missiles. They also don't have a nuclear weapons program.”
How effective will additional Operation Sentinel monitoring [of the smaller waterways] be and which factor(s) would contribute to its ongoing progress in the long run?
Brodsky: “Operation Sentinel is CENTCOM’s effort to promote maritime stability and deter Iran from further escalating in terms of state-sponsored acts of piracy and terrorism. The focus is in international waters in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb strait, and the Gulf of Oman.
So far the Iran has carefully chosen its targets and hasn’t attacked U.S. ships. It knows from actions in Syria, if U.S. personnel are threatened, America’s response will be decisive and deadly. Currently the U.S. is working to make sure U.S.-flagged ships have safe passage. President Trump made clear that other nations more dependent on their energy supply from the region should also protect their own flagged ships. It relies on the threat of each country’s response being taken seriously in Tehran. We’ll see what happens.”
Des Roches: “In the past, maritime protection efforts have been very effective in deterring Iranian attacks on civilian shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Iran usually only attacks civilian ships in the absence of any military assets -- they only attack unarmed transport away from protection. When there is a military challenge Iran tends to withdraw and resort to laying mines so we can expect the same as this effort gets started. Iran will threaten and seek to swarm isolated ships, but will avoid direct military confrontation. Increased surveillance and monitoring should help this mission. Navies around the world have been able to cut down personnel numbers as enhanced radar and tracking allow for more effective operations. But there still has to be a baseline retaliatory capability.”
Iran will threaten and seek to swarm isolated ships, but will avoid direct military confrontation. Increased surveillance and monitoring should help this mission | Des Roches
Is supporting the Houthis affecting the [financial] relationship between Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah?
Brodsky: “Iran has had less money at its disposal to give to Hezbollah. However, the talking point that it is impacting Hezbollah’s militant operations is overblown. They are virtually unchallenged and no other party in Lebanese politics has cashed in on its perceived financial weakness. So there is an impact in terms of the bottom line finances but the more important question would be if it has prevented hostile actions from Hezbollah and is there any reason to believe its powerbase will be challenged as a result. I’m afraid the answer is no to both.”
In my view, the Houthis are supported by Iran but are not dependent on Iran the way Hezbollah is. So if Iran finds itself short of cash, it would make more sense for Iran to cut funding to the Houthis than to Hezbollah | Bodsky
Des Roches: “If the financial pressure on Iran starts to take effect (and there are reports that it is), then eventually Iran will have to cut funding to its various proxies or endure domestic hardship. In my view, the Houthis are supported by Iran but are not dependent on Iran the way Hezbollah is. So if Iran finds itself short of cash, it would make more sense for Iran to cut funding to the Houthis than to Hezbollah.”
What is the future of the JCPOA? Do you see a new agreement being reached between the two parties, especially with the pressure coming in from Europe?
Brodsky: “Since exiting most parts of the nuclear agreement in May 2018, President Trump’s campaign of political and economic pressure has been designed to re-establish U.S. leverage and force Tehran to negotiate a new and more expansive agreement than that secured by the Obama administration. The new deal would not only seek to comprehensively and verifiably prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but restrict their ballistic missile program and curb their corrosive behavior as well – key features missing in Team Obama’s 2015 nuclear bargain.
The new deal would not only seek to comprehensively and verifiably prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but restrict their ballistic missile program and curb their corrosive behavior as well – key features missing in Team Obama’s 2015 nuclear bargain | Brodsky
The regime in Tehran, for its part, is eager to gain relief from the Trump administration’s oil and banking sanctions, but it has weathered tight financial times before in the name of advancing its nuclear ambitions. Europe is wedded to the mistaken idea that the JCPOA somehow works. If it succeeds in lessening the economic strain on the regime in Tehran, it will be adversely impacting Washington’s strategy. They would be best served by joining in the Trump administration’s pressure campaign so that Iran’s leaders realize that the only choice they have to gain relief in the context of a new nuclear agreement that actually works.”
Des Roches: “No. It's dead. Europe tried to keep it alive, but recent Iranian actions are too much even for them.”
How close are we to all-out warfare between US and Iran/Israel and Iran and in your opinions, which straw would be the one to finally break the camel’s back?
Brodsky: “From Tehran’s perspective, nothing is more important than maintaining its nuclear program. It isn’t likely to sacrifice Hezbollah in a war with Israel unless the threat to its nuclear program becomes far more severe. Iran has also chosen to probe the U.S. in the region but it is not well-positioned to win any battle much less a war with America and or Israel. Iran is overextended in the region. An attack on its nuclear facilities might be a trigger but from their perspective, the whole point is to get to acquire nuclear weapons. They know they would lose in any major conflict before they have a nuclear deterrent. I find the whole ‘spiral towards war’ talking point to be a little too dramatic to actually capture the decisions leaders make.”
Iran's strategy is to try and win small victories that are too small to get the giant to respond in anger but big enough that they can advance their cause and try to instill pride at home | Des Roches
Des Roches: “We're not close. Iran avoids all-out war; the West doesn't want it either. Iran seeks to gain tactical advantage (for example, by seizing ships) but will back down when directly challenged (for example, when Houthis fired missiles at US Navy ships and their radar / launchsites were destroyed). Iran's strategy is to try and win small victories that are too small to get the giant to respond in anger but big enough that they can advance their cause and try to instill pride at home.”
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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