Amid great sighs of relief over the supposedly avoided escalation between the USA and Iran, an astonishing fact has been overlooked. America has a vulnerable flank.
In the last few days, we have witnessed an event which will live long in the history books. The most powerful armed forces in the world have allowed Iranian ballistic missiles to hit one of its main air bases in Iraq. This is unprecedented. From a military-strategic perspective this successful Iranian strike can be considered a turning point.
The US was obviously unable to shoot down the incoming missiles with its air defence systems of different ranges, despite advance warning from Iran. Just as the world learned in September 2019 that is was possible to strike Saudi oil refineries with pinpoint accuracy using drones and cruise missiles. This incident was explicitly referred to in a UN report published yesterday, which stated that Yemeni Houthi rebels were not responsible for the attack.
International media is now speculating that the action had been mutually agreed beforehand to save face on both sides. The truth is that the US must have been unprepared for Iran’s response. Much to the disappointment of the Israelis, who have warned the US about this threat. President Trump now believes that Iran is ready to return to the negotiating table.
The US can operate as Israel does, by reacting extensively to every single threat to its territory and its population
But what is really going on? What have the experts who have really been paying attention said? The fact that it is possible detonate a missile on a major US regional military base. This is a watershed moment in security policy. And it will not make the world a safer place, because regimes have now recognised they can pursue regional power politics without fear of reproach. They can operate through proxies in neighbouring countries to destabilise government for their own interests.
The US will do everything in their power to ensure that Iran will no longer be able to use its missiles to project power and realise their aims. They can operate as Israel does, by reacting extensively to every single threat to its territory and its population. Whether by using various missile defence systems, by deploying its air force, or by preventative cyber defence.
Even if these measures result in losses on their own side, as happened in February 2018, when an Iranian drone packed with explosives entered Israeli airspace. Israel’s response was immediate and wide-ranging, and in the process, it lost a fighter plane for the first time since 1982. But the message was clear. Attacks like these cannot and will not be tolerated.
One may now debate who reacted when during the conflict between the US and Iran, and whether it is legitimate for Iran to have its own nuclear programme. Or whether it is legal for the Americans to maintain military bases in Iraq, and why they invaded there at all in 2003. Or simply whether everything that has happened has really aided President Trump’s re-election campaign.
The message has been heard loud and clear throughout the world, and especially in the Russian, Chinese and European military headquarters
These are questions for the politicians. And should anybody feel the slightest hint of schadenfreude, they would be advised to be concerned instead. Because the message has been heard loud and clear throughout the world, and especially in the Russian, Chinese and European military headquarters. The US is not untouchable. This statement, whether we like it or not, will not improve global security.
The first victims in this new clash of forces are innocents. They are the crews and passengers of Iran Air 655, Malaysian MH17, even a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft. And apparently a few days ago, the Ukrainian passenger plane PS752. The blurring of the lines between safe deliberation and decision-making on the one hand and grave mistakes on the other have cost them their lives. In such a situation nobody knows who the enemy is anymore. And scant regard remains for international law, above all the legalities of waging war. Even though they swore that after the horrors of 20th century’s wars this would never happen again.
Welcome to the world’s new order in the 21st century. Europe will be required to commit to the actual goals and objectives of a forward-looking security policy. A mere call to reason will not be enough. Neither will unsheathing the sword. A thorough examination of recent geopolitical developments would be a good start. This is because in matters of security, local events often have global consequences.
This should not only be clearly understood in the restaurants of Brussels but also in the coffee houses which line Vienna’s Graben. Because even a cyber-attack could soon have worse consequences that just a few half-hearted press releases.
Dr. Markus Reisner is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Austrian Armed Forces.