How will Iran respond to US warnings against provocation?

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The attacks on four UAE and Saudi ships near Fujairah port on May 12 are considered by defense analysists monitoring the escalation of US-Iranian tensions as a response by the Iranian regime to the dispatch of US military forces to the Gulf.

According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, one possibility is that saboteurs operating from a small boat placed explosive devices with timers on the ships and fled the area before they detonated. Thus far there has been no claim of responsibility, but a US official said on May 13 that an American military team’s initial assessment is that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies are behind the attacks. It is likely that Iran’s strategy was to carry out a small, deniable attack to demonstrate the vulnerability of tankers in the Gulf and Gulf of Oman.

The US Department of Defense said on May 10 that “in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against US forces” in the region, it approved the dispatch of the amphibious warship USS Arlington and a Patriot battery to US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations in the Gulf. On May 7, CENTCOM tweeted a photo of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, carrying the US Marines’ new F-35B jets, crossing the Strait of Hormuz. The vessels joined the USS Abraham Lincoln and Air Force B-52 bombers, which had been sent to the area earlier that week.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of the carrier strike group and bomber task force in a statement on May 6, adding that any attack by Iran on the US forces or its allies would be vigorously challenged. Bolton emphasized that the US did not seek any confrontation with Iran, but was ready to respond to any attack, whether by Iran’s proxies, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.

Acting US Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan said in a tweet on May 6, “We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation. We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on US forces or our interests.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press statement on May 9 that Iran of late has “engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements.” He added, “The regime in Tehran should understand that any attacks by them or their proxies of any identity against US interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive US response.”

The US declaration came amid reports that Iran is planning to partially withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement. The reports surfaced on May 8, the one-year anniversary of Trump’s order to pull America out of the international deal.

Defense analysts questioned whether Trump was trying to dramatize a routine deployment of US military forces to the Middle East, or is planning clashes with Iranian forces.

Riad Kahwaji, CEO of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told Al Arabiya that the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln constitutes a message to the Iranians that the rules of engagement have changed. The US also intends to convey that in the event of an attack on US bases by Iran’s proxies, the retaliation will be against Iran directly, not only against those militias, especially if ballistic missiles are used.

“The US message is these old rules against do not apply anymore. [The] US will deal with the source of [the] threat, which is Iran directly, and will not go through the proxies,” he said.

According to Kahwaji, intelligence reports said that Iran has distributed ballistic missiles to its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which will be used to attack US forces in the region to counter the pressure on Iran in the form of economic sanctions.

The US recently detected Iranian boats carrying ballistic missiles in the Gulf, and believes it is possible they are headed for US troop locations in Iraq and Syria. “For this reason … Pompeo went directly to Iraq,” said Kahwaji. “The carrier bombers are aimed to provide CENTCOM with firepower and the capability to respond forcefully against any attacks by Iranians.”

Tensions between Iran and the US have been mounting since Trump declared a series of sanctions against Iran, and on May 8 he added iron, steel, and copper – which make up 10 percent of Iran’s exports – to the list. The sanctions prompted Iranian officials to threaten the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, but military analyst and retired Major General Fayez Dweiri of the Jordanian Armed Forces tells Al Arabiya that “Iran cannot close [the] Strait of Hormuz, but it could disable navigation there, and if closed, it’s going to be opened by force.”

According to Article 16 of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, Iran could take steps to prevent the passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz if it perceives this passage as a security threat. But closing the strait would be a violation of international law.

He added, “Any military threat requires military deterrence. The US, by sending the Abraham Lincoln carrier to the region, is building a deterrence force against Iranian threats and showing through this force at the same time … that such US force could cause a strong defeat of Iran if it targeted US interests or troops.”

An outbreak of war between the US and Iran is not likely. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on May 14 that the “face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war,” according to his official website. But others could make the same mistakes as Iran, such as the Iraqi Hezbollah, which could result in a similar confrontation with US forces.

The US is telling Iran that there is a way out of this, if it returns to the negotiating table and considers the 12 demands laid out by the Trump administration in May last year.

If at least half of them are met, the White House intends to negotiate a new, more sustainable deal that it will pass through the Senate and Congress. As Pompeo noted in his press statement, Trump has said he “looks forward to someday meeting with leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”

How Iran responds will determine how things will unfold in the region: Will there be a military offensive, negotiations, or a storm that goes on for months with both sides making threats rather taking any action?

Kahwaji describes the US’s deployment of forces to the Gulf as a “sledgehammer” it is showing to Iran. “At the same time, it’s extending its hand for negotiations, so now the ball is in the court of the Iranians. How they will respond? In addition, which options will they take?”

“Iran does not have the force to fight the US, and it suffers from an unstable internal situation … Its strongest force is the possession of missile capability only,” Dweiri said.