IT’S been an exciting time in the Gulf recently, which is seldom a good thing. It started last week with the US killing a senior Iranian general by a drone strike and continued on Tuesday night with a salvo of a dozen Iranian missiles hitting a couple of US airfields. There are now concerns that Iran may have also shot down (intentionally or otherwise) the Ukrainian Boeing airliner.
All of this has been accompanied by a frantic Twitter storm, generally not approving of the US action (blamed on President Trump) – not least because he appears not to have informed anyone prior to the strike.
Now, I have no better access to the facts than you the reader or, I suspect, most of the commentariat. But here’s my ha’penny’s worth.
The deceased General Soleimani was the controller of Iran’s militias, many of which have a track record of armed actions against the United States and its allies. This form of proxy war has been a thorn in the side of many powers for many years. Indeed, reams have been written on the complexities of countering proxy threats, particularly if they are asymmetric. That no one (other, perhaps, than the Israelis) has embarked upon a programme of decapitation does not make it an ineffective policy, or an unreasonable one. The US has also stated that it had intelligence of an imminent attack upon it, which this action may have averted.
Many are expressing concern that this attack occurred without the US and Iran actually being at war. Perhaps. But at least the action was not taken on Iranian soil; remember Salisbury and novichok? We live and die in a new age. I have no reason to doubt that Soleimani was planning an attack on the US or its vital interests (and neither does anyone else in the media). One could argue that President Trump has a more proactive approach to threats than some of his predecessors; that is his prerogative.
Others are complaining that allies were not consulted in advance. So what? For a start, the practicalities of firing a missile at a time and place when it would not cause unacceptable collateral damage preclude forming a committee. Such operations and the preparation for them are inevitably on a need-to-know basis, and frankly what did our Prime Minister, or anyone else, need to know? Yes, we have some armed forces in the region, but what could the Prime Minister do? If he increased their self-defence posture he might compromise the operation; if he left them unchanged, what was the point of telling him? The same applies to other allied leaders.
The inevitable Iranian response was more of a gesture than a significant theat. Lobbing a couple of dozen conventionally armed missiles at an airfield several hundred kilometres away is not a precision attack. Typically the warhead is about the same size as a couple of RAF bombs, but without the clever guidance, so the effectiveness is based more upon luck than technology. One missile warhead per square kilometre is not serious. (Which is no surprise: these weapons were designed to carry chemical or nuclear warheads, which are far more lethally effective than a few hundred pounds of TNT).
So what next? Expect the US quietly to deploy more of its Patriot missiles in Iraq as these can shoot down Scuds.
Meanwhile the Democratic Party and its European consorts will jump up and down. It’s a shame that no British interviewer can ask any of this bunch: ‘Well, what would you do, facing an imminent attack from a known threat when you have a window of opportunity to neutralise it – albeit at minor diplomatic angst?’
The Royal Navy currently has two ships in the Gulf, HMS Defender (a newish Type 45 destroyer) and HMS Montrose (an ageing Type 23 frigate). The United States has its entire 5th Fleet, comprising 21 warships.
The First Sea Lord may suggest to Dominic Cummings that the Royal Navy’s problem is not too many admirals, but not enough ships. Plus ça change . . .