by Paul Rogers
Is it 2003 all over again – but with Iran and Iraq on the same side this time?
Last week’s G7 meeting in Biarritz was notable for hypocrisy about the Amazonian fires. Brazil’s pyromaniac president, Jair Bolsonaro, is certainly a serious problem and the spreading destruction of forests bodes ill for the future, but it hardly becomes the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and Canada to lecture the Brazilians on the risk of climate breakdown.
Donald Trump at least did everyone a favour by keeping a low profile on this one issue but for six countries at the forefront of high carbon emissions for decades to preach change in Brazil is one more indication of the increasing irrelevance of the G7 itself.
At least on one issue, Iran, there was a worthwhile initiative, with Emmanuel Macron inviting the Iranian foreign minister first to Paris before the summit and then to Biarritz itself. Macron just managed to keep Trump sweet even if US media outlets reported that his advisors were caught on the hop and were furious with the French.
So far there has been little real cooling of tensions and, as it is so often the case in international security issues, it is what the military are doing away from the spotlight that deserves more attention.
Until a week or so ago the US and its junior partner, the UK, were the only two members of Operation Sentinel, Washington’s intended multinational endeavour at patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. With anything led by the US seen as provocative by Iran and its allies, the British had tried but failed to get a European force together: the Germans would have none of it and the French, too, were dubious.
It cuts little ice with the Trump White House, but the few US diplomats still around who have some understanding of the Middle East know only too well that they badly need truly international action if their Iran policy is to be credible. Long-serving diplomats in the UK Foreign Office understand this much better, not least because of their memories of the way the Iraq war went so badly wrong in 2003.
Their concern, even if not even understood by their current political masters, is that one of the issues that turned the Iraq war into an American endeavour in 2003 was the failure to get a broad international coalition together. The UK ended up as the only country apart from the US that contributed credible forces in that long war that followed, and this could now happen with Iran.
Where are we, then, with the plans for Sentinel? At first sight there has been some progress, but look a little deeper and it is revealed as little more than superficial. As expected, the Royal Navy has expanded its forces in the Gulf, adding a frigate and destroyer to the existing frigate in what was previously a small force focused largely on mine hunting. The hope was that the US would persuade the Australian government and others to come on board.
Canberra has indeed agreed to join Sentinel, according to this week’s Jane’s Defence Weekly, but if we look at the detail its commitment is little more than nominal. A single P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will deploy to the Gulf for just one month before the end of the year, one frigate will be based there for six months next year and some Australians will join the operations team in Bahrain.
Moreover, the Australian government is playing it down. “This will be an enhancement of our existing and long-standing contribution to counter-piracy and counter-terrorism mission in the waters of the Middle East,” it said. “Our contribution will be modest, meaningful and time limited,” (italics added).
The one other leader who has made a commitment is King Hamad of Bahrain, a state which is already the home of the US and UK naval forces, is deeply suspicious of Iran and has a singularly bad reputation for suppressing dissent among those of its people who, like most Iranians, follow the Shia branch of Islam.
Iraq pushes back
More significant has been the surprise announcement that Iraq is seeking to restrict coalition military operations in its airspace by requiring approval for them in advance, according to another report in Jane’s Defence Weekly. Iraq’s government leans strongly towards Iran, not least because its support stems from Iraq’s own Shia majority, and it has become increasingly concerned at Israeli attacks on Shia militia facilities in the country.
Israel’s frequent attacks on Hezbollah and Iran-linked groups in Syria and Lebanon are well-known but such operations now seem to have extended to Iraq, with two attacks in July. More recently, on 12 August an explosion at a weapons storage facility at Camp Falcon near Baghdad killed one person and injured 30 others. While these included members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Force, they also involved Iraqi federal police personnel.
These are assumed to have been Israeli drone attacks, and the Iraqi government’s insistence on controlling its airspace might make it easier to intercept such operations in the future. A more fundamental message to Washington, however, is that Iraq’s relationship with Tehran comes first. That was underlined earlier this week when the powerful Fatah coalition in the Iraqi parliament called for the withdrawal of all 5,000 US troops from the country, following a further presumed Israeli drone strike near the border with Syria last weekend that killed a Popular Mobilisation Force commander.
In short, the Pentagon’s multinational military operation to pressurise Iran is limited to just one major country, the UK, plus a nominal contribution from Australia, but with a key state in the region, Iraq, sending an indirect message of caution.
Add to this the Iranian abilities in irregular warfare if tensions did escalate and it becomes clear that Macron’s efforts at the G7 summit really were worth making. Whether Trump and the noted hawks around him will get the message is far from certain but it may just be that the White House will come under increasing pressure from the US military to tread with caution. Perhaps the Pentagon will even ‘speak truth to power’, but don’t bank on it.
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers
This article first appeared on openDemocracy 30 August 2019