With recent revelations that the US Navy's USS Boxer had shot down an Iranian drone over the Strait of Hormuz following a fortnight of renewed tension culminating in tanker boarding operations and the deployment of Royal Navy assets to the region, tensions in the Middle East appear to again be rising as the world braces itself for potential conflict and the ensuing shocks to the global economy and geo-strategic paradigm.
Like scorned lovers, the tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran have long simmered since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 – while periodically tensions boil over, the continuing pursuit of nuclear power by Iran has emboldened the nation to continue its support of terrorist organisations, including Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) among others throughout the Middle East.
Supported by oil and natural gas wealth and relationships with larger great powers, namely Russia and China, Iran is often cited as directly challenging the US-led post-World War Two order and a direct threat to the spread of economic and political freedoms.
Iran is also strategically located at the heart of the world's largest oil fields – the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz, a 65-kilometre-wide waterway linking the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, is responsible for a third of the world's liquefied natural gas and approximately 20 per cent of total global oil consumption.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the appointment of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton signalled an end to the seemingly more conciliatory relationship between the two adversaries – marking a return to the more confrontational style of the preceding Reagan and Bush administrations and has seen a significant rise in the tensions.
In recent months, the tensions between Iran and the West more broadly have begun to bubble over – particularly following a series of attacks on oil and natural gas tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, threatening the global supply of liquid fuel and thus the global economy. This has prompted a resurgence of US military presence in the region, including:
- The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group;
- Four B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers;
- Patriot Missile batteries;
- An additional 5-10,000 US troops in support of the existing 60-80,000 US troops as part of US Central Command (USCENTCOM); and
- The recent deployment of the USS Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group and the Royal Navy's HMS Duncan, a Type 45 Class guided missile destroyer, and HMS Kent, a Type 23 guided missile frigate.
In response, Iran has sought to double down on strategic and tactical mobilisation efforts, shifting the bulk of the nation's armed forces towards the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf respectively in anticipation of a US-led strike and the potential for another protracted conflict in the Middle East draining not only the resources and manpower of the US, but also their strategic attention at a time when China continues to assert its tactical and strategic ambitions throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, both US and Iranian officials remain resolute and defiant towards one another, with bombastic US President Donald Trump declaring that the USS Boxer had taken defensive action in response to repeated ignored requests to disengage from what the US President declared as, "Iran's attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce".
For Australia, the potential of another prolonged engagement in the Middle East is a matter for both tactical and strategic concern – as undoubtedly the US would expect Australian assistance in supporting ongoing operations against the Iranian government, drawing critical attention away from the rising challenges emerging across the Indo-Pacific arc across the continent's northern approaches.
This is best expressed by Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, who described the impact of the increasingly distracted state of the US, telling Defence Connect, "If war does break out between the United States and Iran, I would expect to see nations like Russia and China move to exploit a distracted US – with China’s moves likely to be made in the South China Sea."
Distracted US – a rising China
The US emerged as the key strategic counterbalance in the Pacific following the end of the Second World War – a nation both Australia and its other major regional partner, Japan have been dependent on for both tactical and strategic manoeuvrability unhindered. However, the rise of China and its increasing economic, political and, concerningly, strategic ambitions for the Indo-Pacific will require both Australia and Japan to play a larger, more direct role to counter balance the distracted US.
Japan has closely followed both the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces and the increasing instability of the US, which has prompted the nation to respond with increased funding for the nation’s defence budget, expanding the capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) with plans to repeal the post-Second World War constitutional limitations and reinstate a power projection focused force structure and doctrine to be supported by Japan’s industrial capability to modernise and equip itself in the face of growing regional instability and tensions.
This has resulted in Japan pursuing a number of modernisation and recapitalisation programs, with a focus on acquiring a range of advanced American weapons systems and capability developments to support the maintenance of the US order in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker, regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s "great game".