With US President Donald Trump‘s top diplomat ramping up his campaign to confront Iran’s “malevolent influence” in the Middle East, and his top national security adviser reportedly seeking military options to attack the Islamic Republic, Iran observers are warning the US may be provoking Tehran into an armed conflict that could quickly spread to the whole region.
Sina Toossi, a Washington, DC-based security and nuclear policy analyst, said the Trump administration’s Iran policy now “seems firmly under the control of hardliners” such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, both of whom had previously advocated regime change in Iran.
“Even if Trump does not desire further military entanglements in the Middle East, Pompeo and Bolton appear to be edging the US towards military confrontation,” said Toossi, research associate with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which advocates diplomacy with Iran.
“Already Pompeo is suggesting that a ‘regional conflict’ is inevitable if the world fails to latch onto the White House’s Iran strategy,” he told Al Jazeera.
Azadeh Shahshahani, an Iranian American human rights lawyer and peace activist, said with the US president entangled in political controversies at home, he may be trying to “build up” tensions with Iran to divert attention abroad.
“They probably think that the war with Iran is a good way to distract from all of that,” she said. “So, as a result, every day you hear a new announcement from the administration about allegations against Iran.”
Shahshahani also described the strategy as “very similar” to what the world saw in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The Pompeo and the Bolton crowd, they have a very clear goal in mind,” she told Al Jazeera.
In recent days, there have been more indications of the “maximum pressure” Pompeo vowed to apply against Iran and its allies in the region.
On Thursday, the US Treasury announced new sanctions against the Fatemiyoun Division and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade, two militia groups fighting in Syria and backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. An airline company with ties to Iran’s Mahan Air was also targeted.
In a statement, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin accused Tehran of using the sanctioned entities “to export terrorism and unrest across the globe”.
Under pressure by the US government, Germany has also banned Iran’s Mahan Air, which is already on the sanctions list. An Iranian minister was also quoted as saying the national flag carrier, Iran Air, is also on Germany’s banned list.
Earlier in January, Pompeo also threatened Iran with increased economic and diplomatic isolation, if it continues to launch satellites using space vehicles similar to ballistic missiles.
On Friday, France also warned it could slap Iran with more sanctions if there is no progress over its ballistic missile programme, which Tehran has insisted is not covered by the 2015 nuclear deal, and is solely designed for defensive purposes.
The US has also organised what is seen as an anti-Iran summit in Poland, viewed by Tehran as a “hostile act”.
The danger is these series of actions by the US and its allies could push Iran into abandoning the historic nuclear deal – a course of action that could quickly escalate, analysts said.
Diako Hosseini, director of the World Studies programme at Tehran’s Center for Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera these “ill-timed measures” could endanger the nuclear agreement.
Hosseini also counselled Europe to resist US pressure and “stay committed” to the nuclear deal, instead of imposing more sanctions that could force Tehran to reconsider its options. So far, Iran has said it will stay with the agreement.
Iraq war playbook
But if Pompeo and Bolton succeed “in baiting Iran” into leaving the 2015 deal, it is likely the neo-conservative establishment will replay the Iraq war playbook and “begin pushing for a military attack under the pretext of stopping the Iranian nuclear programme”, Toossi said.
In an article published on Friday, the foreign policy website Lobe Log also warned a war against Iran is “becoming ever more likely”.
“Donald Trump’s domestic troubles, combined with the current makeup of his foreign policy team, provide a confluence of circumstances, perhaps a perfect storm, to pull the United States into a war with Iran,” wrote Jim Lobe and Ben Armbruster.
Iran is not taking kindly of the threats either, responding with a bluster against the US and its allies.
In December, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the US was turning the Middle East into a “powder keg“, with the number of weapons it is directing to its allies.
Last week, Iran’s air force commander, Brigadier-General Aziz Nasirzadeh, was quoted as saying the country is “impatient and fully ready to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the Earth” – a reference to the US’ closest ally in the region, Israel.
On Thursday, Iran’s ground forces wrapped up a “massive drill” in the desert of Esfahan province, wherein Brigadier-General Kioumars Heydari warned “the enemy … to better think twice before attacking Iran”.
“They might be able to start a new war. But they would not be the one to finish it,” said Heydari.
On Sunday, the army’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Baqeri, also hinted it could shift its military doctrine from a defensive to offensive approach at the “tactical level to preserve the country’s national interests”.
The “unpredictability” of Trump could mean “anything is possible”, according to Mehran Haghirian, an Iranian analyst and doctorate student of Gulf Studies at Qatar University.
“What I believe is that Trump himself is not really pushing for a war,” Haghirian told Al Jazeera, saying the American public would not support him.
Trump had previously shown disdain for American military engagements abroad, while noting his top advisers such as Pompeo and Bolton are the people more eager for confrontation, he said.
“They are not credible enough for the international community to support an action,” said Haghirian.
“But anything in the US is possible” under Trump, he added. Still, he also did not discount the likelihood of talks with Iran, pointing to Trump’s strategy of mixing rhetoric and diplomacy in dealing with North Korea.
However, Toossi, the Iranian American analyst, warned the current “aggressive rhetoric of Trump” and the absence of communication and deconfliction channels between Washington and Tehran “creates a high risk of miscalculation and conflict”.
“The spark for a massive military conflict could come from multiple directions, whether a clash in contested [Gulf] waterways, US efforts to remove Iranian influence in Syria, or Iranian retaliation for perceived foreign support for terror within Iranian borders,” said Toossi.
In response, a commander of the Revolutionary Guard said on Monday Iran’s strategy was to wipe “the Zionist regime” off the political map, Iran’s state TV reported.
“We announce that if Israel takes any action to wage a war against us, it will definitely lead to its own elimination and freeing occupied territories,” Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, deputy head of the organisation, was quoted as saying.
“Israelis won’t even have a cemetery in Palestine to bury their corpses,” he said.
Shahshahani, the Iranian American peace activist, called on the opposition in the US Congress and the American public to be “vigilant” about the dangers of the Trump administration going to war with Iran.
“People seem to be more sceptical about the US administration’s foreign policy. Hopefully, people are waking up and understanding that they need to fight back against any attempts at initiating a war with Iran.”