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In the Persian Gulf

Playing for the Galleries

Renewed American-Iranian conflict in the Persian Gulf region

Conflicts resurface in the Middle East from time to time. The region's particularly sensitive point is the Strait of Hormuz on the key route of oil shipments.

U.S.-Iranian relations have been backsliding since the overthrow of the Shah in early 1979. The hostage crisis in 1979-1981 poisoned bilateral relations almost beyond repair. The Reagan administration even went as far as silently assisting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the extremely bloody Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. Tehran tried to employ one of its most potent – if not the most potent – weapons in the mid-1980s: it wanted to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and, at the same time, started to attack tankers from the Gulf states bound for Western and Asian destinations. The U.S. responded by re-flagging Kuwaiti and other tankers to scare the Iranian speedboats and warships away. Then, the administration of George H. W. Bush made a momentous decision after the Gulf War in 1991: it adopted a ‘dual containment policy’, which, in essence, meant that Iran and Iraq were balancing each other, while the U.S. opted for offshore balancing in the region at large.

Regional roles and sanctions
This state of affairs started to shift in the early 2000s due to a number of factors. The toppling of Saddam Hussein and his regime left Iran without a major opponent in the neighborhood. The Iraqi regime change resulted, among others, in the rise of the Shiites in Baghdad, who at times – and still – have close relations with their brethren in Iran. Washington has been trying to bolster Sunni Arab states as a counterbalance to Iran; the Trump administration is pinning high hopes on the Saudis and the Gulf states. Second, Iran has been trying to act as a regional hegemon of sorts, busy in creating a ’crescent’ of power stretching from Lebanon through Syria to Iran. One of its favored tools is training and financing groups such as the Hezbollah; in other words, using proxies to promote its influence in the vicinity. Third, Iran - as one of the key members of the OPEC - has the capacity to produce about 3 million barrels of oil per day, and its customers range from Italy and Greece through Turkey and India to China and Japan. The roster suggests that Tehran has rather influential patrons when it comes to the U.S. deploying its most lethal weapon against Iran, namely sanctions on oil exports. The latest (May 2019) American sanctions are biting: Iran’s oil exports have dropped to 1 million barrels per day, which means USD tens of billions in lost revenue in case the sanctions can be – and are – enforced by the international community. (China and Turkey have indicated their defiance.) Finally, there is Iran’s contentious nuclear and missile program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), negotiated by the Obama administration, did not admittedly solve the problem; it only delayed Iran’s endeavor to build its own nuclear capability. The threat is no smaller than triggering a proliferation of WMDs in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and potentially other states in the region would likely follow suit, turning the entire region much more unstable than it is at present – if such a thing is possible at all.

The specter of war
The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPA, and its rather ham-fisted methods to force the other signatories, including major European powers to renege on the promised economic and political rapprochement with Tehran have boxed Iran into a corner. Despite the considerable amount of oil Iran is pumping every day, there is ample supply in the world market, and it blunts Iran’s oil ’weapon’ for all intents and purposes. Iran may resort to actions it already tested in the 1980s: to prevent oil shipments from leaving through the Strait of Hormuz. The incidents in mid-June, attacks on tankers owned by a Norwegian and a Japanese company, could have been the works of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – or not. The evidence produced by the U.S. is not accepted across the board as being conclusive, and even the targeted companies suggest that no one should rush to conclusions. Some observers even envision the specter of a war between the U.S. and Iran with dramatic consequences. In fact, U.S. force posture in the Gulf region does not point toward large-scale American military action; the reinforcement of some 1,000 troops is clearly not meant for an offensive against Iran. On the other hand, despite all the bravado and bellicose rhetoric in Iran, the country’s leaders are well aware that a military conflict with the U.S. would be catastrophic for their regime and their country. Moreover, they may expect a Democratic president to succeed Donald Trump in January 2021, and in such a scenario – at least given the Obama administration’s record –, the ayatollahs have reason to believe that there may be a return to a kind of JCPA.

Playing for the home audience
A relatively plausible explanation for the current quasi-conflict in the Gulf region might be that leaders both in Washington and in Tehran are playing to their own galleries, that is, domestic politics dictate the events. Standing up against the ‘Great Satan’ and putting the blame of all domestic problems, including economic mismanagement, repression of civil and human rights on the West in general and the U.S. in particular has a popular appeal in Iran. Likewise, demonstrating toughness and determination against Iran and
standing up for U.S. interests in the Middle East resonates with a large segment of American public opinion. Moreover, it also allows the Trump administration to score points with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, which are concerned with Iran’s expanding influence in the region. With Donald J. Trump announcing his intention to run for a second term, the campaign for the White House has essentially started. Major action in the Gulf is not in the interest of the President of the U.S., either. Fiery speeches and tweets are bound to be the weapons of choice in the current conflict in the Gulf region.

Tamás Magyarics

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