Opinion: escalating tensions between the two countries could have huge ramifications for the Middle East 

As the war of words between the US and Iran escalates, the risk of an accidental armed conflict breaking out remains high. Not surprisingly, it is hard to decipher a clear strategy by US president Donald Trump, but the rhetoric is alarming. The now typical bellicose pronouncements from Trump do little to reassure allies, while adding to the general incoherence of US foreign policy under his leadership.

Assurances by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that their objective has been to deter Iran do not inspire confidence. Shanahan is reported to have said that they now want to prevent further escalation and the US is "not about going to war." It certainly does not look that way.  Furthermore, if as is claimed the US administration’s aim is to prevent Iranian miscalculation, this fails to take account of an equally likely US miscalculation.

In a characteristic vitriolic tweet, Trump recently threatened that "if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!" Iran's foreign minister responded by criticising Trump for threatening the Islamic Republic with its "official end." Mohammad Javad Zarif posted his own message on Twitter, saying Trump had been "goaded" into "genocidal taunts." In the US, Democrats are especially worried that the Trump administration may try to rely on war authorisations provisions in order to circumvent seeking approval from Congress for any action.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Borzou Daragahi, International Correspondent for the Independent UK, discusses the rising tensions between Iran and the US

Trump’s aggressive tweet came a few hours after a rocket was fired into Baghdad’s so called Green Zone close to the US embassy in Iraq. The US saw this as a clear signal which confirmed warnings of Iranian plans to target US interests in Iraq. There were also a series of explosions that damaged four oil tankers in a United Arab Emirates port and a drone strike on a Saudi oil facility by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are funded by Iran.

The three attacks in the Gulf all have a clear common denominator. Although Iran has not claimed responsibility (the Houthis took responsibility for the drone strike), the widespread assumption is that the Iranians were behind them. Such attacks enable Iran to send a threatening message while also maintaining deniability.

The latest attack’s proximity to a clearly American target (the embassy in Baghdad) was most likely what triggered Trump’s recent outburst and caused him to threaten Iran directly. In the past Trump has said that he wished to avoid involving the US in conflict in the Middle East. However, he seems unable to contain himself when he perceives any provocation. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive, warns of the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen amid fears that the world's worst cholera outbreak could be set for a massive resurgence

In the current situation, regional dynamics, especially the undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, are also important. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been urging Trump to adopt a more aggressive policy toward Iran since his election and such a policy has long been advocated by US National Security Advisor John Bolton. It is hoped to force Iran to make additional concessions on its nuclear programme and disrupt its support for militant organisations.

In early May, the US accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East and deployed B-52 bomber aircraft to the region along with a Patriot air-defence missile battery. In conventional military terms, Iran cannot compete against the US. However, as the centre of Shia power in the region, its strength lies in the ability to mobilise proxy forces to assist in achieving its objectives. Iran is the primary supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon and was pivotal in supporting the Assad regime in Syria. It is also the main power behind the Houthi rebels in Yemen, in addition to having significant influence in Iraq and on Islamic Jihad in Gaza. This makes Iran a formidable regional foe and not a country to be underestimated.

There are also three vital passages to trade in the area that remain especially vulnerable. The straits of Hormuz, is the best known but Bab al-Mandab and the Suez Canal are also of strategic importance, especially to Israel. The Strait of Hormuz is a vital shipping route linking Middle East oil producers to markets around the world and it has been a flashpoint in the past.

From RTÉ News, US president Donald Trump threatens "end of Iran" if US interests attacked

Iran’s threat to these routes is real and, while it is unlikely that it can stop trade, it has the capacity to cause widespread disruption. Weaponised drones, missiles and remote controlled sea borne devices can all have devastating consequences.

Even certain Democrats in the US concede that Trump is responsible for provoking Iran. The US has abrogated its treaty obligations under the so called Iran nuclear deal, negotiated during the Obama administration to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons production. Trump also has re-imposed punitive sanctions that have damaged severely Iran's economy, and designated Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation.

READ: 40 years of politics, change and protest in Iran

Sadly, one of the elements lost in the current debate about the use of force in the region is international law. It is often conveniently ignored that the threat or use of force by states is prohibited by Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. This is a long standing fundamental principle of international law that governs relations between states. It is not for powerful states to decide what rules to apply or disregard when and if it suits their purposes. War does not have to be inevitable and, in such a scenario, there will be no winners. The main losers once again will be innocent civilians caught up in a conflict not of their making


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ