Iranian Nuclear Impasse: Perceptions, Political Posturing and Military Metaphors
Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Veteran)

Located on the cross roads of three continents and connectivity to the high seas, Persia has always been a perpetual conflict zone which speaks of martial legacy of its constituents. The resultant propensity for steadfast attitude has been an intrinsic affliction, amply reflected in her forays into foreign lands and spread of their religion and rich cultural enriching the conquered tracks. Continuing the legacy, Iran as on date, dons the leadership of Shiite dispensation in face of rival Sunni fraternity lead by Saudi Arabia and propped up by the US for their geo-political benefits.

Islamic revolution of 1979, eight year long war with Iraq, military ante against Israel and Syrian Sunni opponents, patronage to Hezbollah and Houthi rebels are all part of rebellious Iranian DNA with centrality of religious cause. In order to enhance military deterrence, Iran is known to have developed the technology and structures to produce nuclear weapons which is raison d’etre of current anti Iran perspective of the nuclear haves.

Apropos, five members of the UN Security Council, Germany and EU chose to follow doctrine of inclusivity to engage Iran with an aim of controlling their nuclear calculus under international watch. It lead to signing of the Iranian nuclear deal known as Joint Comprehensive plan of Action ( JCPOA)after 20 months of arduous negotiations, in July 2015. While Iran has been following the laid down provisions of the nuclear deal in right earnest, the Trump administration pulled out of the deal in May 2018 with objective of rolling back Iranian nuclear calculus. To do that, US has imposed punitive economic sanctions including denial of sale and purchase of Iranian oil alongside threats of military action in case of non-compliance to US dictates.

Iran is surely feeling the pinch of the US economic sanctions as it is impacting on common man with ever increasing double digit inflation. As a consequence, Iran seem to be in a retaliatory mode, shifting the cognitive ante from economy to the military domain. In that, Iran has threaten to deny use to Persian Gulf for international energy trade. Iranian complicity in rocket attacks, damage to pipelines and oil tankers in Strait of Hormuz and destruction of a US drone are all symbiotic of Iranian political will to initiate military actions, if so required. Iran is reported to have warned the signatories of the nuclear deal to use their influence to restore their economic freedom, or else they will cross the Uranium stockpile threshold by June end, which they have done, conveying their seriousness . Escalating the ante further, Iran has declared their intensions to commence up gradation of Uranium from 3.67% to weapon grade if the deal is not salvaged by 07 July. It has been deliberately done to convey the Iranian nuisance value to the world at large, thereby seeking much needed diplomatic expediency.

The US, on its part, have moved a carrier group and additional few thousand troops to the region. US is known to have initiated cyber attacks on Iranian intelligence and weapon launch networks, a step to push the conflict into hybrid warfare where Americans have an edge. Israel is also reported to have launched air strikes on Iranian positions in Damascus in Syria on 01 July. Iran, in response, has also issued equally stern warnings of dire consequences in case a war is thrust upon them. As a result, a state of political intransigence prevails with tell tale signs of pre war hysteria in the air with all kinds of speculations.

The root cause of current US-Iran stand-off lies more in politico-economic domain than military as being projected to shape the perceptions. Iran, as the second largest producer of the oil and gas, has competing stakes in the world energy market impacting on its production and pricing which is not in line with the strategic interests of US and her allies. The US is looking at retaining global political dominance through controlling energy market and ensure primacy of the dollar as the currency of transactions. In that, Iran is seen to be exploiting the Shiite affinity to lay an Iranian gas pipe line via Syria to Europe as against US sponsored Qatar gas pipe line for the same purpose. In consequence, complicity of US in supporting Sunni Syrian rebels is all about regime change in Syria whereas Iran is considered as a stumbling block as it stands in support of Syrian President, thus impacting on US’ politico-economic strategic objectives.

Therefore, from US perspective, Iran has the potential to impact on their political leverages, besides a challenge to rival Saudi Arabia, and an active proponent of obliteration of Israel as a carryover agenda of Islamic revolution. These fears get further extenuated with emerging Iranian nuclear calculus and consequent military capabilities to push Iranian political objectives in the region. Therefore, Iran needs to be defanged as regards to her military advantage of nuclear capability and its delivery means.

The media is abuzz with talks of possibility of military intervention in Iran by the US which needs to be analyzed in the light of relevant factors. While Iran may not be a match to the military might of US, but it is one of the best organized and experienced military force in the region. Moreover, Russia is known to be politically close to Iran and likely to support them directly or indirectly if it comes to an all out war which adds to Iranian military deterrence. At the same time, US and Russia are on the same page as regards to early reconciliation in Syria, hence Russia may not let the situation go beyond a point.

Success of a military operation is a function of application of the forces in the given terrain, combat ratios, technological superiority and logistics capabilities to sustain the campaign. The terrain in Iran is predominantly mountainous, aligned across most of the approaches to the heartland to limit launch pads and subsequent routes of ingress. Caspian Sea in the North and Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman in the South are large water bodies further restricting build up and unhindered move of large forces. Overall, the terrain suits the defender, and would require large infantry predominant forces for offensive operations, wherein the pace would be slow due to negative terrain and high attrition battles. Whereas, composition of US trans-continental forces have mechanized and marine orientation which may not be suitable in this kind of terrain, unlike the deserts of Iraq. The scope and scale of troops for ground operations may even be larger than what was seen in invasion of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Moreover, air and missile assaults have limited impact in mountains unless these are executed on population centres which has human rights connotations with concomitant ethical issues. The US troops available as of now are no way sufficient for major military operations except conducting standoff air and missile strikes on selected Iranian targets, besides intelligence and protective duties.

Further, the notion of regime change may not be applicable in case of Iran as it enjoys Shia majority in her demographic composition leaving no scope of exploiting the Shia-Sunni divide as has been the pattern for political intrusion by Western powers. Therefore, the local dissent as an asset is unlikely to be of a level wherein a overthrow of the ruling dispensation can be orchestrated. Iran is expected to stand united in case of a military assault by US. Besides, Iranian military tentacles are spread beyond their territories in Yemen, Golan heights, Syria and Lebanon, giving them advantage of opening up multiple fronts with the help of her Shiite allies including local militias. Iran, accordingly, would have a capability to contain and localize the operations of US allies and impacting on concentration of forces, a pre-requisite for offensive operations. Moreover, unlike the Iraqi campaign, the US may not have full political support of major NATO allies as they seem to be keen on continuation of their support to the nuclear deal. Therefore, looking at terrain and troops-to-task perspective, despite technological edge of US, an all out war is appreciated to be unlikely with the reported US force levels as of now. Even if US muster up requisite forces, it would not be an easy campaign from any account.

On the economic front, if Iran and her big trading partners are pushed beyond their tolerance threshold due to US sanctions, there are fair chances that other currencies or barter system may get into system as an alternate mechanism, thus threatening the primacy of US dollar. China has already reported to have conveyed its intensions to continue importing Iranian oil despite US sanctions. While this issue is a matter of debate, the US may not like to go beyond a point in her aggressive posturing, lest it impacts on US’ global economic influence which possibly cannot be ignored. Besides, initiating a fresh military engagement goes against the public opinion in US and the political dispensation is unlikely to act against this public sensitivity. It is expected to be a major issue in the elections due to be held next year, and any military set back, however small, would have negative impact on electoral dynamics. Yes, coercive posturing may surely project Trump as a bold and decisive leader with American interests at heart.

It is also a fact that despite the war rhetoric, all parties to the conflict are talking of negotiated settlement of all the issues concerned. Hence, no one is likely to push it beyond a point unless it spirals out of control due to compelling reasons. However, the coercive political posturing through military means by US as well as Iran is expected to continue so as to garner higher political bargain. The conflict paradigm is expected to be way short of war, constantly seeking windows of diplomatic spaces, albeit with high military resonances. In that, President Trump is believed to have aborted a missile attack at the last moment, probably to create a space for diplomacy in the militarily heightened environment. On the other hand, the continued Iranian compliance of the terms of the nuclear deal is an indication of their inclination to cooperate with the rest of the world on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Therefore, world powers need to take cognizance of Iranian inclusivity in the nuclear deal as that happens to be the best way forward to resolve the current ante.

The current US–Iran confrontation is reflective of a symptom of greater political malice in the region. The disease lies in the emotional divide, denial of politico-economic space, inimical security environment and bruised national egos as an outcome of self-serving interests of its constituents. Whereas there is adequate space for all to grow and prosper through sharing the energy pie and its positive socio-economic synergies. It warrants a mature and pro-active approach to resolve the politically delicate and strategically sensitive issues through dialogue with an open mind. To do that, Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, on their part, need to be more accommodative and move away from the hard-line approach ensconced in their historical past. Iran needs to be a realist and accept the existence of Israel like most of the Islamic countries have already done. In order to shape a conducive environment to facilitate such a reconciliation, US need to prompt Israel to undo their occupation of the Syrian territories and respect UN sponsored boundaries.

The US, Russia and China may like to enforce a pragmatic reconciliation plan amongst the Syrian society, thereby decrease the military ante in the region. It would also facilitate return of 4.5 million refugees from European countries which is impacting on their economy, security and cultural milieu. A regional regulatory regime for control of energy market, ensuring equitable economic dividends amongst all the constituents sans divisive politico-religious influences, would be a better format for lasting peace. All these actions would lower the security and economic concerns of Iran, creating grounds for better cooperation from them. It certainly sounds to be a tall order, but if there is a political will, it happens to be the best solution to usher in peace and tranquility, benefitting everyone. India with her policy of non-alignment enjoys good equation with most of the countries involved. India, accordingly, is in a unique position to play a role of facilitator to defuse the current US–Iran standoff and bring about the warring nations to negotiating table.

Military intervention in Iran seems to be unlikely, and if it happens it may turn out to be another long-drawn affair like Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US and Iran both need to engage with each other to resolve their perceptional differentials. The pattern of President Trump to spring surprises by walking extra mile to reach out to his opponent leaders to shape the political environment for constructive talks cannot be ruled out in case of Iran too. Looking at the vitiated regional security scenario and its benign tell tale signs of war hysteria, it is for the world community to facilitate a way out of stated strong positions by both the sides to salvage Iranian nuclear deal, albeit in a new format, if need be. Till that happens, one can expect political posturing to continue through military metaphors with intermittent incisive punitive strikes for coercive diplomatic assertions.

(Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav, PVSM,AVSM,VSM (Veteran) is a Former Director General, Infantry, Indian Army)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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