Over the last two weeks, as US-Iran tensions have grown, there have been several incidents that appear designed to provoke the US into responding to Iranian threats to the region. Washington had earlier warned Tehran that any attack on US interests or those of its allies would be met by “unrelenting force.” This included acts by Iran’s allies and proxies.
However, on May 12, four ships were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman. While an anonymous US official hinted that Iran or its allies might be to blame, nothing subsequently led to the conclusion that Iran was behind it. Then the next day, the Iranian-backed Houthis used drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. This was a clear attack on a US ally by an Iranian-backed group. But the US did not respond. Instead, Saudi Arabia has called together Arab leaders, but it, too, appears reticent to respond.
On May 19, the most serious incident took place, with a rocket fired several miles toward an area where the US Embassy is located in Baghdad. Once again the US did not respond, but President Donald Trump did threaten Iran.
It appears that at each juncture, so far, Washington has preferred to walk back its claims of holding Iran accountable, and delay any “swift and decisive” response, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned on May 10.
Neither the US nor Iran want war, but their rhetoric has tended toward bluster and threats. America does not want to appear as if it is not abiding by its word, but neither does it want an open-ended war with Iran and its proxies. With some of these issues being known by both sides, the region is now beset by high-stakes brinkmanship by both the Islamic republic and the Americans.
Has Iran set upon a policy of testing US resolve? Were these incidents in the Gulf of Oman and Baghdad designed to do just a bit of damage but not harm anyone nor destroy anything, and thus not force a response?
If a rocket hit the US Embassy for instance, then Washington would have to do something. Rockets have been fired in the past – at the US consulate in Basra for example – and the US evacuated the post. It had already withdrawn non-essential staff from Iraq.
How difficult is it to aim a rocket at the embassy? Iran showed in strikes last year that it had ballistic missiles capable of pinpoint precision. But its militia allies may not. Either way, if the missile was not aimed, then there was a chance it might have hit the embassy. Would an Iranian-allied militia have risked such a devastating mistake in which the embassy was struck by an inaccurate rocket? Likely not. Instead, the culprit purposely fired the rocket near the embassy as a warning and to test what the Americans would do. Iranian allies know about this method. They have done it to Israel via Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Similarly with the tanker sabotage, it did not sink the ships. A weapon has to be super-precise and calibrated to damage but not sink a ship. That means studying ballast tanks and design, and knowing what payload or warhead to use. We still have not heard the final details on what caused the damage to the tankers, but it appears like a complex operation designed to test US resolve, and also the resolve of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi drone strikes were more serious, but the Houthis and Saudis are already engaged in a war, so the incident was not necessarily unexpected.
MEANWHILE, there are other rumors about movements of US troops and Iran’s constant rhetoric about being ready for war. The question is whether the pinprick-style attacks, perhaps designed to test US reactions, will increase. After the embassy incident, almost all of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq distanced themselves from the attack, asserting that it wasn’t helpful for the public interest. They didn’t exactly condemn it, but their statements were designed to show that they were not responsible.
Clearly the statements, if not coordinated, were issued quickly to prevent US blame from falling on their shoulders. Sen. Marco Rubio had warned two of the largest paramilitary militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, against attacking the US. They were on notice. They know that America is serious. But whoever fired a rocket wanted to see just how serious.
The narrative emerging abroad is that the US is all bark and no bite. The Boston Globecalled Trump’s foreign policy “erratic, cautious and ineffective” on May 14. “Iran tensions spotlight Trump’s questionable credibility,” CNN said on May 15. The Washington Post also said on May 15 that Trump may not be convinced the time is right for conflict. The Telegraph examined how “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are ‘jabbing’ at the US without provoking full-scale war,” on May 18. “Trump’s Iran threats are part of a troubling and ineffective foreign policy,” NBC said on May 21. NBC had originally titled its headline, “All bark, no bite.”
Iran’s strategists read US media and they seek to play into US domestic policies, even feeding narratives to allies in the West. With Trump, Iran has channeled the “madman theory” that president Richard Nixon had pushed in Vietnam. Both The Atlantic and CNN have identified this as part of the Trump doctrine. Iran even called Trump “crazy” on May 20. The concept is that “his adversaries would presume a disproportionate, irrational response, without Nixon having to give one,” as CNN notes.
But in order for that to work, one has to also be willing to do something. Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, mining Haiphong Harbor, and Operation Linebacker II, the Christmas bombing of the North. Trump, by contrast, has not done anything like that.
So far, the pinpricks are testing US policies and threats. If they continue, an incident may occur that Washington cannot ignore – and then Trump’s threats will be tested fully and openly.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.