ASIAMIDDLE EASTOPINIONPOLITICS

War in the Persian Gulf? Let’s hope not

By Younes Mahmoudieh

In recent weeks, we have witnessed an alarming escalation of tensions between Iran and world powers that should frighten everyone involved. Uncertainty and mutual hostility have propelled the United States and Iran towards a perilous conflict that can only lead towards one terrifying conclusion (unless immediate measures are taken): war. Brinkmanship in the Middle East has proven to be disastrous in the past. Political commentators have warned that the current situation can easily mirror the US invasion of Iraq in 2001. They are mistaken. Iran is no Iraq. The results would be even more disastrous. The possibility of war in the Persian Gulf is increasingly becoming conceivable. Everything must be done to avoid such a catastrophe.

What Led to the Current Crisis?

American sanctions have tightened their grip on the Iranian economy in the past year as the Trump administration seeks to further isolate Iran and choke its access to humanitarian goods and the global market. The Islamic Republic has been backed into a corner. After successful lobbying by the Americans in recent weeks resulted in the British government in Gibraltar seizing an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria (a claim the Iranian government denies), Iran’s leadership, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed that the event would not go unanswered. He warned that the Islamic Republic would “respond to the vicious act.”[1]

Iranian authorities have been desperate to sell their oil on the world market in order to counteract the devastating effects of American sanctions. Iran has already begun scaling back its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal (the JCPOA) as talks with Europe regarding an Iran-EU trade mechanism (Instex) have failed to bring about concrete action. Iran has yet to receive the financial benefits it was promised under the nuclear deal. The seizure of the Iranian tanker has only added fuel to the fire. A perilous game has begun.

Rising Tensions

Only weeks earlier, another incident involving Iran and the United States had caught the world’s attention and foreshadowed imminent conflict. After sending an RQ-4A Global Hawk BAMS-D surveillance drone into Iranian territorial waters for what was supposed to be a regular surveillance mission over the Strait of Hormuz (one of the world’s most strategic choke points), the United States was caught off guard when an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot the spy drone out of the sky. Iranian authorities lauded the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for its quick reaction; President Hassan Rouhani went on to say that “[the Iranian] people are happy with the country’s defense power.”[2]Commentators around the world, however, anxiously awaited the US response. Iran claimed it had proof that the American spy drone had violated its airspace. The United States was adamant that it had not.

In the days following, President Trump responded through the use of his usual diplomatic medium: Twitter. The American president tweeted that he had authorized military strikes against Iran in retaliation for the downing of the drone but had changed his mind at the last second after one of his generals informed him of the number of potential human casualties. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently commented regarding the incident: “Prudence prevailed and we’re not fighting.”[3]Such a strike would have undoubtedly been perceived as an act of war. Cooler heads seemingly saved the day. Another American misadventure in the Middle East was avoided. However, once again, recent events have pushed Iran and the West towards a path of no return and brought back the risk of war.

The Strait of Hormuz

The Islamic Republic has warned in the past that it could block off the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean, if it is not allowed to sell its oil to the world. It is increasingly becoming clear that this threat may become a reality. Almost “a fifth of the world’s oil supply goes through the strait.”[4]The strait has always been a source of controversy between Iran and the West. In 1988, 290 Iranian civilians were killed in the strait when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft, Iran Air Flight 655. 

Iran has significant interests in the waterway and boasts the longest coastline along the Persian Gulf. In February of this year, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri maintained that, “as long as Iran is able to export its oil through the Strait of Hormuz…the waterway will remain open.”[5]US Naval Forces in the 5th Fleet have been deployed in the Persian Gulf for years and often come into contact with Iranian patrol boats.[6]These close encounters “had become almost routine in [recent] years.”[7]After being elected, “U.S. President Donald Trump warned he would ‘blast out of the water’ any Iranian vessel that threatened U.S. ships.” In March of 2018, the Pentagon announced a major drop in provocative encounters with Iranian vessels; an announcement welcomed by many as an opportunity for an easing of hostilities. This is no longer the case. 

A British-flagged tanker (the Stena Impero) has been seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; a direct response to the British seizure of Grace 1 (the Iranian oil tanker seized off the coast of Gibraltar). Iranian authorities have announced that the British ship “had collided with a fishing boat and failed to respond to calls from the smaller craft.”[8]The United States condemned these actions immediately and announced that it has reached out to the British government and offered its assistance. 

A day earlier, the US Navy claimed that the USS Boxer had downed an Iranian drone over the strait “after it came within 1,000 yards (914m) of the ship.”[9]Iranian authorities dismissed the claim and released footage from the drone that they claimed disproved the American account of the incident. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi even tweeted saying he was “worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS by mistake!” But now that both a British and Iranian tanker have been seized, Twitter feuds may spill onto the world stage. The Persian Gulf has become a dangerous battleground for an imminent crisis. 

The Only Path Forward

Both Iran and the United States have claimed in recent months to have shot down each other’s spy drone. The Iranians and the British have both seized an oil tanker from each other. The world is anxious to see how this drama will play out. UK warships are shadowing British oil tankers in the area, and the United States has proposed a US-led “military coalition to protect commercial shipping off the coast of Iran and Yemen.”[10]We are truly living in dangerous times. Immediate steps must be taken to avoid war. 

Hawks on all sides are preparing for a conflict. US National Security Advisor John Bolton has been calling for an invasion of Iran for years. His commentary, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” outlines his vision for the Middle East.[11]President Trump, however, ran on a campaign promising no new wars in the region. The United States cannot afford such a conflict. A study published in 2018 claimed that “Americans spend $32 million per hour on wars started during the Bush administration.”[12]

Iran possesses a military much stronger than either Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Lebanon. The Islamic Republic also benefits from strong ties with regional paramilitary groups and ballistic missiles capable of effectively targeting American bases in the region. Iran is a force to be reckoned with but has also proven itself to be receptive towards diplomacy and negotiations.

 Iran remained compliant to the entirety of its commitments under the JCPOA for a full year after the Trump administration violated the agreement. The country has even recently proposed “a deal with the US in which it would formally and permanently accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear programme.”[13]Engagement with Iran works. A war will not. 

Not long ago, Iran defeated the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who at the time was being supported and armed by the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States. But now, the Islamic Republic maintains close ties with both Russia and China, and its military has developed impressively. A diplomatic resolution to the current crisis must be sought. War with Iran would be bloody and costly.

The United Kingdom should immediately begin bilateral negotiations with Iran to resolve the current crisis and should not fall victim to John Bolton’s war plans. In turn, the Trump administration would greatly benefit by disposing of Bolton and instead utilizing more level headed figures in the government, such as Rand Paul, who have publicly offered their assistance to resolve issues with Iran and have proven their commitment towards finding peaceful resolutions. Diplomacy can win the day, but only if all sides act now. War mongers on all sides must be disposed of. No one can afford any more costly escalations. A war in the Persian Gulf would be a nightmare. It is time for all sides to wake up and act.

Sources 

[1]“Khamenei Vows To Take Revenge On Britain As He Calls For National Unity.” Radio Farda, 16 July 2019, en.radiofarda.com/a/khamenei-vows-to-take-revenge-on-britain-as-he-calls-for-national-unity/30059086.html.

[2]“President Rouhani Says Kisses Hands of IRGC, Defense Ministry for Developing Powerful Missiles.” Farsnews, 26 June 2019, en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13980405000252.

[3]Julian Borger. “Iran Makes ‘Substantial’ Nuclear Offer in Return for US Lifting Sanctions.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/18/iran-nuclear-deal-trump-mohammad-javad-zarif-sanctions.

[4]Hannah Ingber. “Strait of Hormuz: 5 Key Facts.” Public Radio International, 29 Dec. 2011, www.pri.org/stories/2011-12-29/strait-hormuz-5-key-facts.

[5]“Iran Guards Commander Threatens To Block Strait Of Hormuz.” Iran News Farda, RFE/RL, 26 Feb. 2019, en.radiofarda.com/amp/iran-guards-commander-threatens-to-block-hormuz/29791593.html.

[6]“U.S. Strength in the Persian Gulf.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Feb. 1998, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/iraq/military/usstrength.htm.

[7]“U.S. Reports Major Drop In Encounters With Iranian Vessels In Persian Gulf.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 16 Mar. 2018, www.rferl.org/a/iu-s-iranian-vessels-gulf-drop-close-encounters/29103356.html.

[8]“Tanker Seizure: Jeremy Hunt Warns Iran against Choosing ‘Dangerous Path’.” BBC News, BBC, 20 July 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49054586.

[9]“US Destroyed Iranian Drone in Strait of Hormuz, Says Trump.” BBC News, BBC, 19 July 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-49040415.

[10]“US Wants Military Coalition to Patrol Waters off Iran, Yemen.” Iran News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 10 July 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/military-coalition-safeguard-waters-iran-yemen-190710020439304.html.

[11]Julian Borger. “John Bolton: the Man Driving the US towards War … Any War.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/17/john-bolton-iran-north-korea-venezuela-trump.

[12]Stephanie Savell. “15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?” Foreign Policy In Focus, 21 Mar. 2018, fpif.org/15-years-after-the-iraq-invasion-what-are-the-costs/.

[13]Julian Borger. “Iran Makes ‘Substantial’ Nuclear Offer in Return for US Lifting Sanctions.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/18/iran-nuclear-deal-trump-mohammad-javad-zarif-sanctions.

Younes Mahmoudieh is a researcher on Iran-West relations at UCLA under the guidance of Ambassador Mousavian. His articles have appeared extensively in Iranian media as well including but not limited to Hamshahri Newspaper, Eghtesad news, Payvand News, Gooya News, and Khabaronline. His research “The Nuclear Deal: A Crossroad or Deadlock in Relations with Iran” was recently published by the International Studies Journal.

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