Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Iran, North Korea… why, and to what extent, can these middle powers challenge the United States today?

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This Sunday, radical elements, linked to Iran, carried out a massive and coordinated strike, using missiles and attack drones, against an American logistics base in Jordan, resulting in the death of three American soldiers, as well as 34 injured. The attack represents the culmination, for now, of an escalation led by Iran against the United States in the Middle East, as North Korea does the same on the Korean peninsula. Although independent at first glance, these two areas of tension are, in reality, much more linked than it seems.

With each new provocation, whether Iranian or North Korean, the United States seems limited, and very cautious, in its responses. If Washington's measure is obvious, it is above all dictated by a global strategic context, which could quickly be very unfavorable to it, with in the background, the Russian threat against Ukraine and Europe, and that of China against Taiwan, and in the Pacific.

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Indeed, if each theater, in isolation, already has a significant potential for escalation in the relatively short term, they appear to be part, taken together, of a larger and otherwise worrying dynamic.

What is the point of origin of the emerging global escalation?

Russia and China have not been afraid of the United States for ten years. This is at least what we can deduce from the radical change in posture of both Moscow and Beijing, which occurred around ten years ago, with the Russian intervention in Crimea then in the Donbass, despite the The commitment made by the United States to guarantee the Ukrainian borders with the Budapest Memorandum, and with the tightening of the nine-line rule in the South China Sea, as with Taiwan, by China.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
The defiant posture of China and Russia vis-à-vis the United States evolved almost simultaneously, between 2012 and 2014, i.e. after the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin, and the arrival of Xi Jinping in power.

If the trajectory followed by these two rapidly evolving powers has worried Western military staffs and chancelleries for several years, Iran, like North Korea, seemed still under control, with the Vienna agreements concerning the Iranian nuclear program. , as well as a certain form of normalization of relations between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang, on the other.

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At the end of the previous decade, however, these two countries evolved towards a much more demanding and bellicose posture towards the United States, it is true partly in connection with the complex positions of the Trump administration on the subject.

But it is undeniably since 2020, and especially from the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, that Tehran and Pyongyang have shifted, almost jointly, towards a posture of active defiance against the United States, and the West in general. , going so far as to use offensive military means against American forces or their allies.

3 dead, 34 injured among American soldiers: tensions between Washington and Tehran have reached a new milestone

If the United States almost launched air strikes against Iran in 2019, after the Iranian anti-aircraft defense had shot down an RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, this episode seems, today, almost innocuous in view of Iranian provocations against the American forces in recent weeks.

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Iran destroyed RQ-4 Global Hawk in 2019
The destruction of a Global Hawk drone by Iranian anti-aircraft defenses brought the United States within striking distance of massive strikes against Iran. What will happen now that three American soldiers have been killed by strikes carried out by Iranian proxies?

Indeed, since mid-October, Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have carried out almost 160 direct attacks against American ships or bases . These attacks gave rise to retaliatory strikes against infrastructure in Yemen and Iraq, from which drones and rockets were launched against American positions.

This escalation reached a new threshold this Sunday, when an attack carried out by Iranian-made drones and missiles, launched by radical elements close to Tehran, struck an American logistics base in Jordan, leading to the death of 3 soldiers. Americans, as well as 34 wounded.

As could be expected, this attack, and its disastrous results, led to numerous reactions in the United States. If the White House promises a firm response “at the appropriate time”, American senators and representatives are much more pressing, for a direct and massive response against Tehran.

Conversely, the American central command, like the Secretary of Defense, certainly appears shocked by this attack, and resolute in responding to it, but seems to want to avoid directly involving Iran.

Arleigh Burke SM2
US Navy destroyers have intervened numerous times since mid-October to intercept Houthi cruise missiles, drones and ballistic missiles sent against them or civilian ships in the Red Sea.

It must be said that a massive intervention against Iran, led by American forces, would today be particularly complex to carry out, and especially to support. First, in such a scenario, it is likely that Iran would not hesitate to use its large stock of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and its attack drones to strike American interests, as well as those of their allies, throughout the region.

Such a hypothesis would lead, without the slightest doubt, to a conflagration in the Middle East, as well as the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, and very significant consequences on the production and transport of hydrocarbons in the region with, as a result, a global crisis with unpredictable consequences.

On the other hand, a US intervention against Iran would certainly not be limited to a few strikes without Iranian responses, and would therefore turn into a long-term conflict, for which the United States no longer has the required military means. .

At least, not without stripping deployments in Europe against Russia, and in the Pacific, against China and North Korea, by directly reducing the possibility for the US defense industry to respond to requests to support Ukraine, the European armies, or its allies in the Pacific zone of the United States.

North Korea increases provocations and bellicose acts

If the American response to the Iranian attack is difficult to balance, that in the face of North Korean shows of force and provocations against its southern neighbor, as well as Japan, and the American forces located in both countries, are hardly any easier.

KN-23 ballistic missile North Korea
North Korea has acquired remarkable skills in a few years in the field of ballistic missiles, contrasting with the performance of Russian missiles such as the Iskander-M.

For several years, and after an episode of apparent normalization, at the initiative of Donald Trump, but controlled by Kim Jong Un, North Korea has been increasing its military displays of force , in particular by increasing its missile launches at sea. Yellow and the Sea of ​​Japan.

For Pyongyang, it was a question of demonstrating its new capabilities in the field of long-range strikes, in particular concerning long-range ballistic missiles, capable of reaching American soil, but also tactical missiles with trajectory semi-ballistic, capable of thwarting the anti-ballistic systems deployed in South Korea and Japan, such as the THAAD and the SM-3.

Like Iran, North Korea has significantly evolved its hawkish posture since the start of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, both in Kin Jong Un's speeches and in demonstrations of force. Thus, as in 2010, North Korean artillery struck two South Korean islands , leading to their evacuation, but no military response, neither from Seoul nor from the United States.

Since then, Kim Jong Un has announced a revision of the North Korean constitution , rejecting the status quo concerning the borders with the South, in the Yellow Sea, and promising war on anyone who enters the territory of his country, even though such a hypothesis is inevitable for South Korea, some of whose islands encroach on this new border unilaterally decreed by the dictator.

Kim Jong Un submarine Sanpoo North Korea
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has been increasing his provocations and bellicose remarks against the United States and South Korea for several years. In recent months, this discourse has become even tougher, joining action with words.

As in the face of Iranian provocations, the United States has responded, until now, more than lukewarmly to the provocations of North Korea and its leader. Certainly, these have not yet resulted in deaths or injuries. But American restraint is explained, above all, by the same elements as in the face of Iran, namely the too limited and dispersed means of the American armed forces to engage in a confrontation with Pyongyang.

Is escalation inevitable in the Middle East and Korea?

If the postures followed by Tehran and Pyongyang are already, as we see, most worrying, and can easily lead to escalation in the Middle East as on the Korean peninsula, two factors tend to make the risks of escalation even more pressing.

The first is based on the renewed ties between these two countries and Russia, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Indeed, to break its diplomatic isolation, and more to support its military effort against Ukraine and its Western supporters, Russia has radically changed its posture towards Iran and North Korea for two years. .

Thus, Moscow obtained substantial military aid from these two heavily armed countries, whether it was Iranian Shahed 136 attack drones massively used by Russia to strike Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, or artillery shells. and North Korean ballistic missiles, also used by the Russian armies against Ukraine.

Iran Shahed 136
The arrival of Iranian Shahed 136 long-range attack drones in Russia allowed the Russian armies to intensify the pressure against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, effectively removing a large part of Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems from the front.

The compensation given by Moscow is still uncertain. According to Tehran, Moscow has agreed to deliver Su-35s fighters, but also anti-aircraft systems to its armed forces.

North Korea is even more discreet on this subject, even if we can assume, given the million shells and tactical ballistic missiles sent to Russia, that compensation at least as important as those promised to Iran, were given to Pyongyang.

These new weapons systems, but also probable transfers of Russian technologies to these two countries, as well as the support promised by Russia, have the power to quickly change the regional balance of power, making an escalation more likely.

The most aggravating factor, concerning a possible escalation of these theaters, however, lies in their simultaneity. Indeed, if the United States is already struggling to respond to the tensions exploited by Tehran and Pyongyang individually, without weakening defensive postures in Europe and against China, the emergence of a simultaneous crisis in these two theaters, would simply be beyond the reach of the United States, at least in the conventional domain.

US Navy Task Force
The US Navy does not have sufficient potential to intervene simultaneously on more than two fronts, one major, the other secondary, by the CNO's own admission.

Worse still, if Washington were to find itself in such a situation, there would be fears that China would also come to challenge the United States at the same time, if not in Taiwan, perhaps around the territorial dispute with the Filipino ally.

In fact, the risks of escalation between the United States, on the one hand, and Iran or North Korea, on the other, have the potential, due to the existence of the conflict in Ukraine, and to a lesser extent, in the Middle East, to create an escalation on a global scale, involving all the major military and nuclear powers.

The strong interaction of simultaneous escalation risks in the world

We understand that the United States is, today, facing significant tensions and more than significant risks of escalation, whether in the Middle Eastern theater, facing Iran, or in the Korean theater, facing Pyongyang.

The constraints linked to the war in Ukraine, and tensions in Europe, but also those concerning Taiwan, facing China, have shaped the present situation. However, it is Iran and North Korea which have, today, the greatest latitude to come and provoke the United States, knowing that any isolated escalation would lead to induced escalations in other theaters, with term, a possible global conflagration.

Aware of this unique opportunity, Tehran, like Pyongyang, is multiplying provocations, going further and further, to push the United States either to leave the theater or to negotiate, knowing that military escalation would be, for Washington, the riskiest option, although certainly the most tempting, including politically.

The announced, but still unconfirmed, arrival of Su-35s in Iran would significantly reshuffle the regional military balance, especially if they are delivered with certain high-performance munitions, such as the very long-range air-to-air missile R- 37M.

The situation is all the more difficult and risky as the United States has entered the electoral campaign period, which is hardly compatible with a calm debate around a particularly complex international situation.

The only solution for the United States to contain these risks would be to delegate to the Europeans, perhaps with the participation of certain regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, the middle theater. Eastern and European, while concentrating all of its resources in the Pacific against China and North Korea.

However, if the hypothesis is attractive, it is not very credible today, in the absence of a framework nation capable, through its military prevalence, of uniting Europeans as the United States has done since the end of the Second World War. World War, while the United States does not seem ready to give up its dominance in Europe.


The fact remains that in the absence of a radical change in the Western geopolitical context, the risks are now very significant of seeing the quartet formed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea engage simultaneously in actions, including military ones, to undermine the operational potential and political influence of the United States, against which the overpowering American armies would most certainly be powerless.

By only taking into account the theaters and their deadlines in isolation, here the Pacific in 2027, there Europe in 2029, Westerners are likely to find themselves surprised on a strategic scale, if all these theaters were to ignite simultaneously, in the shorter term.

Article from January 29 in full version until March 3, 2024

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