The invitation to the next war is already on the desk of our prime minister.
This invitation will be for New Zealand to join what is classified as an "multinational military coalition", as led by the United States, to safeguard the waters around Iran and Yemen. These international seaways are currently under threat, as the six recent attacks by limpet mines, and one attempted hijacking, on oil tankers in the region testify. To stop this problem, the United States is currently speaking to a number of countries with the "political will" to join their proposed coalition.
Finding friends who have both the "political will" but will not directly trigger a war with Iran will be difficult. That is, although the United States has major allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, for either of them to place additional naval assets in very close proximity to Iran, would be seen as very provocative by Tehran as this would look more like a blockade, than a neutral force for the benefit of all.
If US President Donald Trump opts for a more "neutral" type of multinational military coalition, then the phones will start ringing in the NATO and then the "Five Eyes" countries, which includes New Zealand. These phone-lines started to ring when we joined efforts in Afghanistan in 2001, and then became much louder in 2014, with our intervention into Iraq. With the Iraqi effort, former Prime Minister John Key joined the coalition, explaining that was part of the price for being in the club of the Five Eyes.
The real issue is that Trump has provoked this problem by quitting the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, of which Iran was in compliance with, to obtain a new treaty covering a multitude of other issues, in addition to nuclear controls.
In this instance, Trump will be aware that not only are we still in the club, but also, that we have real naval capacity and experience in coalitions protecting international waters from threats such as pirates. These considerations will be very attractive to the White House.
The acceptance of the invitation could also be attractive to New Zealand for four reasons.
First, if attacks on shipping continue, war could come quickly as such actions are a clear threat to international peace and security. To help bring order on the oceans to that part of the planet and prevent what could be a very bloody regional war, would be a noble act.
Second, to protect the freedom of navigation in internationally recognised waterways, as the Straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb are, is an important principle in itself. It is doubly important for a country such as ours to which the freedom of the seas is our lifeblood.
Third, there are strong economic reasons to keep the shipping flowing. If these particular waterways are blocked, the price of oil will escalate everywhere. This was evident the last time this game was played in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when there were hundreds of attacks on neutral merchant vessels. Today, about 18.5 million barrels per day (about 30 per cent of the world's oil) goes through the Strait of Hormuz, and about 4.8 million barrels per day through Bab-el-Mandeb.
Fourth, if war does break out and remains fought only on the oceans, the military superiority of the United States and allies, coupled with the fact that Iran has no major allies, should win with relative ease.
Although the reasons for joining the "multinational military coalition" are good, there are four equally good reasons for why we would not want to join this coalition.
First, if war does break out, Iran will have every intention of spreading chaos and conflict far beyond the oceans. In this context, it will be anything but contained. If it turns into a ground war, and boots on the ground have to be involved, it will be as attractive as the conflict in Afghanistan or Syria.
Second, if war breaks-out, it will be very difficult to know the truth of who started it. Most conflicts start out with half-truths, lies and propaganda. This is exceptionally the case in the Middle East where there is no shortage of good, bad and ugly state and non-state actors who want to spark conflicts and blame others in the process. In this context, rather than volunteering when asked, more good could be created by calling for comprehensive and neutral United Nations directed investigations and high level talks attempting to establish who is currently breaching the rules, and trying to avert the crisis. Once it is clear who is breaching the rules, and all options to solve this problem diplomatically are ended, it will be easier to position this country.
The third reason we may wish to decline the invitation, is that this current call is not really about the security of international waterways. The real issue is that Trump has provoked this problem by quitting the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, of which Iran was in compliance with, to obtain a new treaty covering a multitude of other issues, in addition to nuclear controls. To get this goal, he is trying to economically strangle Iran with sanctions. In reply, Iran is now acting out.
While Iran is probably misbehaving in the region, it is certainly breaching the 2015 nuclear deal, in terms of both the purity and size of the stockpile of nuclear material it now holds. If Iran continues down this path, it could, perhaps, be nuclear weapon capable within 18 months. There is no way either Israel or the United States will allow this to happen, at which point if war has not already occurred, war will certainly happen.
With all of this context, it can then be argued, finally, that if New Zealand decides to join any multinational force to help protect global shipping, it should be beneath the flag of the United Nations, not next to the flag of the United States.
If ever there was a time for supporting a more neutral solution to the problem at hand, as proffered by the Security Council and reflecting international consensus and not bilateral persuasion, this is it.
* Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University