Who is the Real Global Threat? Iran, North Korea, Russia, China or the US?
“What I saw was a lot of misinterpretation and wanting conflict coming from the administration and intelligence community. Intel doesn’t show existential threats. Even what it shows, it doesn’t show threats to U.S. interests.”—Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.)
Depending on the news cycle, the United States either refers to China, North Korea, Iran, Russia or the Latin American “Troika of Tyranny” (Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua) as the most imminent and existential threat to U.S. security. Currently, Iran appears to be sitting at the top of the list of threats to the U.S., but is Iran really as great a threat as the U.S. makes it out to be?
Middle East Troop Deployment
President Donald Trump has decided to send around 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East amid escalating tension with Iran. Trump said the deployment of extra troops is aimed at protecting American military personnel in the war-torn region.
“We want to have protection in the Middle East. We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn before flying to Japan, Friday.
But at the same time, Trump says he does not expect a war with Iran and believes that Iran does not want a conflict with the U.S. either. “Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight. And I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us.”
The 1,500 additional troops included engineers and a fighter aircraft squadron in the Middle East to boost U.S. defense and expand the deployment of around 600 stand-by personnel equipped with Patriot missiles, as a Pentagon news briefing revealed on Friday. Earlier this month, Washington sent the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier and some B-52 jet bombers to the Middle East to counter an alleged Iranian threat.
During a visit to Pakistan, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed his objection to the increase in the U.S. military mobilization in the Middle East. Iran “will see the end of Trump, but he will never see the end of Iran,” Zarif said as Fars news agency quoted.
Zarif held talks with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Pakistan’s military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
US-Iran Tension: A Brief Overview
Last year, Trump exited from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was signed in 2015 by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany. Under Trump, the U.S. claimed that the agreement was not adequate in forcing Iran to halt its nuclear programs, though the agency responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance maintained Iran had adhered to the agreement. Trump then later re-imposed sanctions on Tehran.
Iran retaliated by suspending several commitments in the deal, including regulations regarding uranium enrichment. The Islamic country has threatened to bolster uranium enrichment capacity. Iranian officials said the enriched uranium level will still stand at 3.67%, as stipulated in the JCPOA deal. However, increasing uranium production by fourfold will make Iran exceed the limit allowed in the JCPOA. Iran has set July 7 as a deadline for the treaty’s signatories to produce a new agreement.
Around two weeks ago, two Saudi tankers were attacked in United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) waters. Riyadh condemned the raid, calling it “sabotage” and an attempt to damage its oil supply. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have yet to mention who is the believed mastermind behind the attack. But Washington claimed that Iran was to blame for the Saudi tanker raid off the UAE coast, as a senior Pentagon official said. However, the Pentagon official again offered little evidence to back his claims, saying instead that the conclusions were based on intelligence data.
Is Iran as Dangerous as the U.S. Government Thinks?
While Trump’s hawkish aides, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, insist Iran poses a concrete threat to U.S. national security, not all politicians and analysts agree with the Trump administration’s assessment. Some believe Bolton has provoked Trump into taking military action against an alleged, but unsupported Iranian threat.
Congressman Ruben Gallego (D.-Ariz.) is one such politician that believes U.S. intelligence has exaggerated Iran’s so-called threat, a conclusion based on intelligence documents he read.
“What I saw was a lot of misinterpretation and wanting conflict coming from the administration and intelligence community. Intel doesn’t show existential threats. Even what it shows, it doesn’t show threats to U.S. interests,” the Harvard graduate lawmaker told the Washington Post by phone, on Saturday. Gallego, who is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, cited Bolton and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as among those behind the misleading information about the Iranian threat.
Top British General Christopher Ghika also snubbed Washington’s claims about Iran’s growing threat in the Middle East, as The Guardian reported. “No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Ghika in a video conference with the Pentagon.
China, North Korea and Russia Also Possible Threats
In addition to Iran, U.S. intelligence and foreign policy analysts point to China’s growing strength as a world power, the failed denuclearization of North Korea and Russia’s interference in U.S. elections as top threats.
The U.S. has focused more on issues such as terrorism and climate change since the end of the Cold War, Jami Miscik, CEO of geopolitical consulting firm Kissinger Associates, said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in October 2018. But, Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and the trade dispute with China have shifted the U.S. focus by bumping both countries further up the list of U.S. national security threats.
Iran could become more of a threat due to the rising popularity of more extreme Iranian leaders after the nuclear deal faced a stalemate, Miscik suggested.
“I don’t think [Western] companies ran in there the way moderates in Iran hoped they would. Domestically, the moderates have declined in popularity,” Miscik added.
According to the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a closer Russia-China cooperation could endanger the U.S. national security in terms of espionage and cyber attacks.
“China and Russia pose the greatest espionage and cyber attack threats. China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge,” said Coats in the annual report Worldwide Threat Assessment last January.
Speaking on Iran, the report added that Iran still complied with the nuclear deal despite Washington’s withdrawal. Coats stated that his agency did not believe that Iran was engaged in any activities the intelligence judged necessary to produce nuclear arsenals, an assessment Trump snubbed.
While the intelligence assessment saw it as impossible for North Korea to give up its nuclear program, as nuclear weapons are vital to Kim Jong-Un’s regime survival. “We continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key U.S. and international concessions,” Coats added.
Trump and Kim met twice (in Singapore in 2018 and in Hanoi last February), but they failed to reach an agreement on denuclearization due to both leaders’ different interpretation of that term.
US as Growing Global Threat
While the U.S. intelligence agencies’ annual threat assessment listed Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as China and Russia, as the U.S.’s number one threat, research conducted by the Pew Research Center shows an alarming increase in the percentage of the global population that sees the U.S. as a threat.
Based on surveys conducted in 22 nations since 2013, a 2018 Pew poll found that “a median of 45% across the surveyed nations see U.S. power and influence as a major threat, up from 38% in the same countries during Trump’s first year as president in 2017 and 25% in 2013, during the administration of Barack Obama.”
The 2018 Pew poll followed a 2017 Pew poll which found that after asking 38 countries about eight global threats United States power and influence was seen as a greater threat than Chinese or Russian power and influence.
Despite the growing negative view of the United States, the U.S. was still seen as the preferred leading global power, according to Pew’s 2018 poll.
And while favorable views of the U.S. prevailed in many countries, not every country held such favorable views.