One of the hallmarks of President Trump’s foreign policy has been a fierce critic of Iran and the deal made by President Obama, which allowed for the Iranian sanctions to be lifted in exchange for Teheran’s giving up its nuclear program. Apart from the Persian Gulf, a traditional battleground between the two countries, US and Iranian forces are also in close proximity in Syria, where members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been instrumental in recent victories of the Syrian Army, with Russian air force providing ample air support. On the other hand, US forces have maintained a presence in Kurdish-occupied parts of Syria, from where they have been coordinating air strikes against regime’s forces.
Despite heavy fighting, there haven’t been any clashes between the two sides so far, much to the dismay of Israel, which has been advocating for a tougher stance on Iran, especially in Syria and has conducted numerous strikes against both Iranian forces and local militias backed by Teheran. This was all done in an effort of preventing Iran from gaining a stronger foothold in the country that shares a border with Israel.
In March, President Trump fired H. R. McMaster from the position of the national security advisor and appointed John Bolton as his replacement. Bolton, a Bush-era hawk and a strong supporter of Iraq war, is known for his aggressive stance and has advocated for preemptive strikes against both North Korea and Iran, a stance that has earned him a wide-spread criticism in international circles. Many have seen this move as a preparation for a more hostile posture towards Iran and its involvement in Syria.
The fears of conflict escalation have also been fueled by the statement made by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, saying that “we want to make sure that the influence of Iran doesn’t take over the area. They continue to cause problems throughout the region, and we want to make sure that there is a hold.” The looming deadline imposed by President Trump on its European allies to fix the Iranian deal, set for May 12th, is fast approaching and if the US withdraws, it would only further destabilize the already fragile situation.
Some experts say that the cost of direct confrontation would be too steep for both countries. Professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham Scott Lucas said that “There’s no appetite on either side to deliberately look for a wider conflict because then your costs outweigh your benefits,” he told Al Jazeera. “You have to put in so many resources and have the problem of not knowing how far this will go.”
Iran has just starting to recover from decades of international sanctions and an open conflict with the world’s most powerful military is something they are desperate to avoid. On the other hand, the US is faced with a dramatic decrease of domestic support for any military adventure in the Middle East and is trying to limit its forces in the region.
While an outright conflict between the US and Iran’s forces may be far-fetched, both countries possess capable forces in Syria that can do the fighting for them. Iran has numerous militias which it has trained and supplied for years, and the US have Syrian Democratic Army, a heavily Kurdish-dominated force opposing Assad’s regime. These are fully able to maintain a low-intensity conflict for a long time, supported by their allies in Washington and Teheran.