12.01.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

USA’s Short-Term Goal – Iran, and Long-Term One – China?


This article was written during the brief period between Iran’s attack on American military bases in Iraq and the next step yet to be taken by the United States, which may prove just as tough. But since the author of this text is not an expert on either the United States or the Middle East, his aim is not to predict in detail the path the escalation will follow but instead to focus on how this problematic situation is viewed from the Korean perspective.

In the past, the author has already mentioned that if he were an American military strategist tasked with choosing a country whose defeat in battle would indisputably demonstrate U.S. dominance to the world, he would select Iran as such a nation for a number of reasons.

First of all, the “culprit” subject to a “public flogging” cannot be a banana republic or a failed state, instead it ought to be a country with substantial geopolitical ambitions. In addition, it should be a nation that is widely viewed as an enemy of the global community, and that has been “sufficiently” demonized. Based on the above criteria, two candidates remain: Iran and the DPRK.

Secondly, Iran does not possess nuclear weapons, while in the case of North Korea the situation is far from certain, perhaps the latter does have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead. After all, military strategists base their assessments on the worst-case scenario, and Mike Pompeo has earned the author’s respect by openly stating, at one point, that sooner or later the DPRK would develop such a missile because such a project was as important for this nation as the Manhattan Project had once been for the Allies. This means that, if only in theory, North Korea is capable of containing its enemies to a limited extent as the cost of warfare against it is unacceptable. Broadly speaking, if the entire nation of DPRK was to turn to ash as a result of a U.S. nuclear strike and Los Angeles was to be hit in retaliation, it would be difficult to call such an outcome a victory. And it is imprudent to fully rely on missile defense systems.

Thirdly, North Korea is less “transparent” than Iran, which means that there are far more unknowns to consider when preparing a “battle plan” against it. For instance, it is impossible to know how many decoy targets or underground military facilities (meant to help the DPRK survive a preemptive strike) there are or what is the size of Pyongyang’s theoretical fuel stockpiles when the development of the single carbon fuel sector is taken into account. There is far more information about Iran, which allows for more accurate plans to be devised.

Fourthly, there are no very close strategic allies in Iran’s vicinity whose safety the United States is reluctant to compromise. With the aid of its short-range missiles, the DPRK is capable of striking at infrastructure targets in South Korea and Japan in order to at least disrupt the transfer of armed forces to the conflict zone and to cause as much damage as possible in the process. Another concern is that Pyongyang’s 2019 tests of short-range missiles and of large-caliber multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) call into question South Korea’s ability to defend itself against missile strikes. With Iran as the target on the other hand, Israel is not that close to it and, as for the threat posed to oil producing fields in the Middle East, one must not forget about U.S. strategic reserves or the hopes the United States has pinned on the shale industry. In other words, the USA is counting on managing without Arabic oil.

Fifthly, in the case of an invasion of the DPRK, such plans would have to be agreed with Beijing and Moscow. After all, the theater of war would be too near to the two nations, and if North Korea was not made out to be the aggressor during the conflict, Moscow and Beijing could choose to, either openly or covertly, provide significant amount of aid to Pyongyang. The probability of a similar level of involvement by the Russian Federation or the PRC in any potential war against Iran is much lower (however, the possibility does exist from the perspective of an American military strategist).

The sixth point is that the rise of the fifth column in North Korea is just as unlikely as mass protests against the regime there, while in Iran such a scenario is theoretically more plausible. After all, there are liberal politicians as well as active protest movements in the latter. However, even in this particular scenario, our hypothetical military planner could overestimate his abilities, still U.S. chances against Iran are better anyway. And from the author’s point of view, it really is not necessary for the United States to aim to raise its flag in the middle of Tehran. A more likely strategy for the U.S. would be to focus on destroying civilian and military infrastructure targets in Iran, with the aid of highly accurate long-range weapons, in order to cause a crisis of governance there, which, in turn, could result in anti-Islamic protests.

Now, let us focus on some elements of the context. First of all, Americans started off by immediately exerting a certain amount of pressure on Iran. It might have been possible to say that the strike was aimed at the head of the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, and that Qassim Suleimani’s presence in one of the cars was a tragic coincidence. However, the Iranian Major General was reported to be the intended target. Moreover, the fact that Qassim Suleimani posed an imminent threat (i.e. he had been planning something on a larger scale) was used as the justification for the assassination. But preventive strikes are always problematic from a legal/ethical perspective since we cannot find out what the target of such an attack was planning in every case.

In addition, in spite of what the Democrats are saying, Donald Trump’s decision to order the attack was not spontaneous. The general view is that after an American serviceman had been killed as a result of a missile strike, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) met with the U.S. President to convince him it was “time”.

If we were to view this situation from a more long-term perspective and take into account an opinion held by a number of experts who believe that a “hot” war with China is strategically unavoidable, we could deduce that the conflict with Iran could play an important role of preparing the United States for what is to come.

First of all, a strike against Iran is equivalent to an attempt to sever a “petrol hose” linking it to China. After all, not everyone is fully aware of what the situation is actually like. China has invested $280 billion into Iran’s oil and gas industry and, in exchange, it will not pay for oil deliveries in U.S. dollars but instead in Yuan or soft currencies earned by doing business in Africa or in nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. The PRC will be able to purchase oil, gas and petrochemicals at a guaranteed discount of at least 12%, and to also take advantage of an up to 2-year grace period. In addition, China will have the right of first refusal in relation to any new or renewed projects in Iran’s oil and gas or petrochemical sectors. Chinese companies will be able to deploy approximately 5,000 of their own security personnel in Iran in order to protect investments there, as well as additional staff to ensure oil delivery lines (including those in the Persian Gulf) are secure.

Secondly, a successfully waged war against Iran would mean an opportunity for the United States to reach the Caspian Sea, and from there Central Asia. Such an outcome is quite important as it would give the USA a chance to exert its influence on Xinjiang more directly. In time, the Uyghur independence movement will spring up in this region with diplomatic and military support from the United States and the “rest of the civilized world”, which has already got itself worked up about the issues of concentration camps, genocide, etc. in this part of China.

An interesting question arises in such a context “What effect would this situation have on the Korean Peninsula?”. Undoubtedly, Kim Jong-un would once again learn the benefits of possessing a nuclear bomb. And in such a scenario, either the regional peace talks would continue and the DPRK leader would enjoy a respite from conflict with the United States otherwise engaged in the Middle East, or Kim Jong-un could use the situation to his advantage by carefully raising the stakes (since the USA would not have the resources to wage two serious war at the same time) and forcing the world power to come to an agreement. In addition, North Korea would most likely voice its support for Iraq, well actually, Iran.

The question is to what extent would Pyongyang be willing to help Iran with technology or experts. We do not know whether there are any agreements between the two nations actually in place, but it could be tempting to find out how certain technological components actually work. However, the associated risk is also great. If North Korea were to openly become Iran’s ally, the punitive regime of sanctions against it would, at the very least, transform into a blockade.

An even more interesting question is “What awaits South Korea?”. On the one hand, the ROK needs to fulfill its alliance commitments, and even before the situation escalated in January, the United States had demanded that Seoul play a more active role in ensuring safety in the Strait of Hormuz. On the other hand, South Korea is in many ways dependent on oil supplies from Iran and the Middle East, and thanks to Moon Jae-in’s efforts this reliance has increased somewhat. As a result, Seoul’s failure to meet its alliance commitments could substantially increase the level of discord between South Korea and the United States, and Donald Trump has a sufficient number of levers at his disposal (first of all, economic in nature) to pressure this ally. However, there is a chance that catering to all of the U.S. demands would have a negative impact on ROK’s economy as well as on Moon Jae-in’s image as an independent populist President. In addition, without a doubt, Seoul’s active participation in the war would jeopardize the Inter-Korean dialogue, within whose framework South Korea would risk becoming Washington’s puppet incapable of making its own decisions. All of this is happening at a time when the South Korean legislative election is less than 100 days away. And a victory by the conservatives could result in Moon Jae-in prematurely becoming a “lame duck” President and, in the worst case scenario, in the eventual start of public protests in favor of impeachment. In any case, the author intends to report on the possible repercussions of this crisis for South Korea in a separate article.

Needless to say the author has repeatedly discussed the fact that there would be many changes and higher chances of escalation of the situation in year 2020. Still, events are progressing in a more unexpected manner and at a faster pace too, although in another region altogether. Clearly, we do hope that it will be possible to find a non-military resolution to the current conflict, but it is more sensible to consider possibilities that will allow any repercussions of the present situation to be minimized. The only things that remains unclear is what this minimum means.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.