Image from The New York Times.
Out of major crises that the world is currently grappling with, escalation in the Persian Gulf is one of the most captivating. Explosive mixture of geopolitics, domestic political considerations and war brinkmanship are what makes this US-vs-Iran saga so thrilling.
Seemingly, smaller actors like Malaysia would prefer to stay away from this tussle. However, given nearly obsessive preoccupation with “the Iranian threat” that the American administration and its regional allies are having right now, it does not seem possible to not to keep watching. After all, secondary consequences of this, such as fluctuation of oil and more significantly – gold prices, as well as the rise in prices for oil freight insurance affect wider range of parties, apart from those immediately involved.
The recent escalation was instigated by the June 13 incident, when two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. This was the second attack within a month following the attack on several tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on May 12. Results of a comprehensive investigation were not released; perpetrator is not officially found in both incidents. It does not seem that anyone is interested in the real investigation, as Iran has already been designated as the mastermind behind the attacks.
On top of that, after the United States (US) recently stepped up its presence in the Persian Gulf with air carriers, bombers and additional troops, Iranians downed an American spy drone on June 20. To be sure, there is no agreement whether this happened in international waters, as the Americans claimed, or in Iran’s territorial waters, making it the obvious precondition for self-defense.
The main question buzzing in the media these days is if we should expect another war in the Middle East and how other powers would react to this. The answer is no – hopefully, not for now. Yet, it does not make the situation less disturbing.
The Middle Eastern drama around Iran originated in the revolution of 1979 when it ceased being one of the US’s security pillars in the region. But this recent escalation involves many current domestic political considerations in Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv with also a keen interest in Riyadh.
So, unfortunately, it is not a one-dimensional problem and is not simply revolving around Tehran pursuing development of nuclear weapons and for this being punished by the guardians of the international non-proliferation regime. In fact, at the moment, Iran is not pursuing the creation of nuclear arms at all, and in reality, it is the regional influence that disturbs some neighbors and the US as its long-standing antagonist.
Yet, the so-called nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), stroke in 2015 and started to be implemented in 2016, was about addressing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. After coming to power, Trump fulfilled one of his key pre-election promises – to leave the disadvantageous deal with Iran, which he did on May 8, 2018.
While grappling with continuing economic hardship for a year after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Iran expected decisive actions from the European Union (EU) to create an alternative mechanism for economic exchanges (for Iranian oil exports in the first place). Tired of waiting, president Hasan Rouhani announced that Iran is going to stop performing on a number of its commitments on a stage-by-stage basis, starting from May 8, 2019.
Besides that, officials from Tehran stated more than once that if Iranians can’t sell their oil, no one in the Persian Gulf should be able too. That is a very important claim, given that around one fifth of the world’s oil supply and above one third of the seaborne oil passes through the chokepoint in the Strait of Hormuz. Then, the repeating attacks on tankers took place, reminding everyone how fragile the security situation in the gulf is.
Now, these geopolitical interlinks between Iran, US, Saudi Arabia and Israel make sense when we can detect who is benefiting from the escalations and how. The rhetoric from Donald Trump and key figures in the anti-Iran escalation (John Bolton and Mike Pompeo) was somewhat dissonant: threats of retaliation and then acknowledgment that it was just a drone shut down without casualties, information about Trump aborting the strike against Iranian targets when he reportedly learnt that around 150 people would die, series of cyber-attacks by the Americans against the Iranian military infrastructure and then suddenly open arms for talks with Iran without preconditions.
However, despite the escalation, it looks like nobody wants this to slide further into a war. Probably, some Arab neighbors of Iran and Israel would like to see a lite version of it, as some have hinted more than once that it could be good to eliminate “the Iranian problem” by stronger hands of the US. This would especially play into the hands of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing another parliamentary election in September and is in the midst of a corruption scandal.
For Iran and the US instead, the current situation is the best one can imagine. On the one hand, Trump is showing decisiveness to act when American interests are threatened, and on the other, he shows prudence not to engage America into another war abroad as this would be against his declared policy and very undesirable on the eve of the 2020 presidential elections. At the same time, tensions in the Persian Gulf serve as a wonderful pretext to attempt bypassing the congressional ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The batch under question is worth US$8 billion and was blocked by the Congress for not to be prospectively used in the Yemeni war by the Saudis as a head of the coalition there.
For Iran, enemy at the gate is an ideal pretext to buttress popular support for the current government. Besides, those who tasted the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s are still in power in Iran and they do not want to live through another war like that. Therefore, political elites in both Tehran and Washington would reap some benefits from this loosely controlled escalation in the Persian Gulf.
Perhaps, they can’t afford hanging at the edge of brinkmanship for too long. Perhaps, Iranians will rely on the guess suggested by the US ex-foreign secretary, John Kerry – to wait until Trump is replaced by someone in the upcoming elections. Sadly, the conservative political elite in Tehran, which is staunchly against negotiations with the West, might find itself too empowered until the moment when someone Obama-like will appear again in the White House.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world will keep observing instability in the oil market under the accompaniment of the war drums.
Julia Roknifard is a Director of Foreign Policy at EMIR Research – a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centered around principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.