US preoccupation with Iran is to China’s benefit - Hindustan Times

US preoccupation with Iran is to China’s benefit

Feb 08, 2024 09:51 PM IST

American strategic wisdom has been elusive thus far, but it is direly needed.

Even as the world’s attention has been focussed on the Israel-Hamas war, the broader regional conflict between the United States (US) and Iran has escalated to dangerous levels and carries significant global geopolitical lessons. The cycle of drone, missile and air strikes between the US and Iran’s proxy militias in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen raises the risk of America once again getting entangled in the maelstrom of West Asia and losing focus on countering China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

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History bears witness that American diplomatic, military and economic immersion into West Asian conflicts has opportunity costs. They result in watering down strategic counterbalancing of what the US itself calls its main “pacing challenge” and systemic rival, China. Although the Biden administration has assured that “we certainly don’t seek a war and frankly we don’t see Iran wanting to seek a war with the US”, the relentless tit-for-tat clashes with Iran will increase the need for the presence and enhancement of US naval, air and land assets in and around West Asia to maintain deterrence.

Indeed, the American appetite for a full-scale land war or regime change operation in Iran is absolutely zero. But waging a medium-intensity conflict against Iran and its proxies requires the commitment of more American budgetary allocations, munitions, force projection, operations and aid to regional allies in West Asia. Headline-grabbing incidents causing the deaths of US soldiers from Iran-backed strikes, such as the one at the trijunction of Jordan, Syria and Iraq on January 28, can trigger louder political calls in Washington to teach Iran a lesson through a display of compelling American military might. This is a slippery slope and a quagmire because Iran is not going to back down from fuelling its “axis of resistance” out of fear of US warnings or carefully calibrated American air strikes.

The halfway house between “no war” and “no peace” with Iran is a source of uncertainty and deviation in American foreign policy. Even though the US possesses a powerful military and a gigantic economy, there are limits to how far it can sustain sharp pressure on multiple adversaries in far-flung theatres. American military doctrines have shifted from the Cold War-era “two-and-half war force” concept (having the capability to simultaneously fight two large regional wars and a small brushfire war) to essentially a “one war force” concept today. Turning the clock back to a two-war or three-war force is not financially or politically viable in contemporary times. Since 2022, the Biden administration has poured over $75 billion into aiding Ukraine as it resists the Russian invasion. This campaign to weaken Moscow has implications for Beijing’s territorial ambitions as it has led to delays in the delivery of American missiles, rocket launchers, jet fighters and naval vessels to Taiwan, with a reported backlog of $19 billion of uncompleted orders.

In a strange twist, Ukraine is now suffering American neglect as the Israel-Hamas war and the related conflict with Iran have taken centre stage in Washington. The US’ supplies of 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine have dried up since they are being rerouted to Israel instead. As the US is pulled hither and thither, China seems to be having the last laugh. Beijing prefers that Washington be trapped in faraway “zones of disorder” so that it has a free hand to establish hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

The image of America as an omnipresent and all-conquering superpower is passé and cannot be revived. The US must get realistic, judiciously choose its fights, and not sleepwalk into a pell-mell environment where it has to take on Iran in West Asia, Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific — all at the same time. In West Asia and Eastern Europe, the US should simply let go and allow regional powers to work out their own modus vivendi with Iran and Russia.

The notion of America as the world’s policeman and chief enforcer of order is pure fantasy. With Donald Trump, famously wary of foreign entanglements, possibly recapturing the White House in this year’s US presidential election, maybe the current phase of American strategic overstretching and lack of prioritisation will end. But before that, what if another deadly incident involving Iran or Russia raises the stakes and the US sinks deeper into those morasses? American strategic wisdom has been elusive thus far, but it is direly needed.

Sreeram Chaulia is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Friends: India’s Closest Strategic Partners’. The views expressed are personal

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