May 13 (UPI) -- The Middle East woke up to alarming news Monday. The White House announced Sunday that the United States is sending an aircraft carrier strike group and an Air Force bomber to the region, citing Iranian "troubling and escalatory indications and warnings."
National security adviser John Bolton said the purpose of the deployment is "to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force."
At the same time, the official Saudi press agency reported that two Saudi oil tankers came under "sabotage attack" off the United Arab Emirates coast. The report did not specify who was behind the act. Bolton added that though the United States is not seeking a war, it is prepared for a full response to Iranian actions. On the other hand, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the recently appointed head of the revolutionary guards, announced the United States is starting a psychological war. Though both parties claim they don't want war, tension is high and any provocation can start a full-blown war that can go out of control.
The buildup takes us back in history, to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The United States had an agreement with Turkey to deploy missiles that can potentially hit the Soviet Union. In retaliation, the Soviets decided to erect an installation of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba, which is located 90 miles away from the United States. This led to a 13-day standoff, triggering a U.S. blockade of the island. The United States plunged into a state of general panic; people were expecting a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers. The tension ended without a military confrontation because Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked first. The Soviets agreed to remove their missiles in return for a promise that the United States would not invade Cuba. However, the consequences were quite severe for Khrushchev. Two years later, he was forced to resign by high-ranking Soviet officials.
It is important to note that in autocratic regime, the leader cannot show a sign of weakness. Unlike democracies, where stepping back could be interpreted as compromise for the greater good, in a dictatorial regime, backing down means incompetence. A sign of weakness means the end for an autocrat. You blink, you die. Khrushchev made the mistake of blinking before U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and this blink, this sign of weakness, cost him his political career. The question today is: Facing this standoff between Iran and the United States, who will blink first -- U.S. President Donald Trump or Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
It is obvious that the United States cannot afford another confrontation. The American budget is suffering from a $991 billion deficit. Arab Gulf States are exhausted by the Yemen war and probably cannot finance another war. Most importantly, Trump campaigned on an non-interventionist agenda and going into his 2020 re-election campaign, another war will not help him with his base -- especially with the 2020 slogan "promises made; promises kept." Starting a new war is quite a big promise to break.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton, the architects of this confrontation, are betting that Khamenei will blink first. However, this will not necessary be the case. Khamenei knows that any compromise will make him lose legitimacy. It is important to note that with the collapse of the nuclear deal, the hard-liners have gained momentum and people in Iran have become increasingly cynical of any agreement with the United States. Facing the pressure of sanctions, Iran entered with the international community into Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, the agreement was shortly revoked by the Trump administration.
What are the options? Will the United States blink first and remove its aircraft launcher from the Gulf? If this is the case, then it will be a huge gain for Iran, which will market the move domestically and to its audience in the Arab world as a victory and as an ability to humiliate the "Great Satan." On the other hand, if Khamenei blinks first, this will be a serious blow to the regime that will show the futility of the ideology. Since the inception of Islamic revolution, the overarching narrative is that the United States is the "arrogant"" power, the source of evil and the cause of the calamities of the region, starting with its unconditional support of Israel. A large part of the legitimacy of the regime is built on its anti-American premise. Will Khamenei relinquish on all that without putting a fight?
The third option is for the international community to intervene and come up with a solution that can save face for both parties. However, there is no sign that anyone wants to interfere in what looks like a messy fight.
Dania Koleilat Khatib is an affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. She specializes in U.S.-Arab relations and researches sectarianism, extremism and governance. Her book "The Arab Lobby and the U.S.: Factors for Success and Failure" was published by Routledge UK and translated to Arabic.