Despite tensions between the US and Iran peaking, it is highly unlikely that a war will occur as the stakes for the region as well as oil-dependent nations is just too high.
The only way, it appears, is dialogue, as political suicide is in nobody’s interest.
It is that time of the year again when the threat of a potential global conflict scares leaders, policymakers, analysts, and citizens across the world. This time, the threat comes from the United States of America (US) and Iran, for they both are now actively engaged in diplomatic provocations and the usual threatening on Twitter.
Background: Trump Versus The Iranian Regime And The JCPOA
It all started in January 2017 when Iranian citizens were banned from entering the US, along with those of six other countries. The US stated that the officials in Iran had failed to cooperate on multiple fronts. The US also designated Iran as sponsors of terrorism. This happened as the US found itself warming up to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, forming a coalition in the Middle-East to counter the Iranian influence.
It all went further downhill when the US President Donald Trump, in May 2018, declared that he would walk out of the JCPOA or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Negotiated between Iran and the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, the European Union, France, China, and Germany, the JCPOA, or the Iran Nuclear Deal, enabled Iran to attain economic relief in exchange of its nuclear ambitions.
Going against the consensus, Trump went ahead with the withdrawal, supported by Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt. All the other signatories to the JCPOA opposed the walkout while India remained neutral. Back home, in the US, the general agreement was that the US should go on with the JCPOA while attempting to negotiate better terms. The walkout came with a great dent to the US’ credibility.
Earlier this year in April, the US criticised the activities of the Islamic (or Iranian) Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), citing their involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for indirectly supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad. Designating them as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), the move by the US added to the growing stress with Iran.
The Attacks In The Gulf Of Oman And The Strait Of Hormuz
The tensions between the US and Iran were recently reflected in the Gulf of Oman. The gulf is critical to the route that connects the Strait of Hormuz to that of Arabian Sea and enables the transportation of 30 per cent of the world’s crude oil. Therefore, any tensions in the Strait of Hormuz or the Gulf of Oman have a direct bearing on oil prices and consequently, macroeconomic trends of countries like India.
In May 2019, four commercial ships were damaged in the Gulf of Oman while they were anchored in the territorial waters of the UAE for bunkering in the Port of Fujairah, the world’s second largest bunkering (refuelling) port. Two of these ships were registered oil tankers from Saudi Arabia, one Norwegian oil tanker, and a bunkering ship registered in the UAE. On the same day, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei met in Iran.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the UAE government termed the damage to the ships a ‘sabotage attack’. Given the size and importance of the port, the incident held potential repercussions for the shipping industry worldwide. The US blamed the IRGC for the attack while the UAE chose to be ambiguous in its report.
Earlier this month, another incident occurred, this time with two oil tankers that were near the Strait of Hormuz. This time, Japanese and Norwegian vessels were attacked with limpet mines, also known as flying objects, leading to damage by fire. This further added to the stress between Iran and the US. Again, the US accused Iran of the attack, and this time, it was backed by the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Germany in its accusations.
Earlier this week, as a response to the incidents, President Trump announced the deployment of a thousand additional troops in the Middle East, citing the possibility of a war.
Drone Wars, Again
To further worsen matters, earlier this week, the IRGC announced that it had taken down a US RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone. While the US official position was that the drone was in international airspace, the Iranian state claims otherwise, saying that it was shot down as it violated their airspace.
However, this is not the first time the two nations have been involved in such skirmishes. In December 2011, a US Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV under CIA was captured by the Iranian forces in the city of Kashmar. The Iranian claim was that the drone had been captured by means of cyber warfare, a claim that did not go well within the White House corridors. A year later, in November 2012, two Iranian Su-25s fired on a US drone in the Persian Gulf. In 2013, an Iranian F-4 fighter chased a US MQ-1 drone over international waters. Eventually, the former returned to the base as it was warned by two incoming US fighter jets.
President Trump called the taking down of the RQ-4A Global Hawk drone a very big mistake on Twitter. However, his reaction to the press was far less ambiguous. Stating that the attack was carried out by someone acting ‘loose and stupid’ and one without intention, Trump downplayed the entire incident.
What The US And Iran Want Right Now?
The US, at this point, is not seeking a war against Iran, as openly stated by President Trump. Given that the US drones have been under attack in the past from Iranian forces, it would be premature to term this incident as a cause of conflict.
The reaction for Trump, back home, has also been mixed. While Democrats have called for restraint, his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton are pitching for an aggressive response. However, the consensus amongst the military and intelligence community is that an overreaction by the US could well go out of control, pushing the US into a war it is not ready for.
Iran, on the other hand, is looking to play with nuclear forces beyond its ken. On 17 June, Iran announced that it was going to further reduce its nuclear commitments and compliance signed under the JCPOA unless not helped by the other signatories in the deal.
For starters, Iran is looking to go beyond the set limit of enriched Uranium. Targeting 27 June as the day when they exceed the limit, the spokespersons of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation have said that the production will cross 300 kilograms. As per the JCPOA, the stock limit for Iran’s low-enriched uranium at 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride enriched to 3.67 per cent is to stay for 15-years.
While the breaching of the limit may not amount to any immediate threat, if the upper limit is exceeded by many thousand kilograms along with the installation of thousands of additional centrifuges, it would fast-track Iran’s quest to a nuclear weapon.
While the signatories to the deal, apart from the US, have called for the deal to stay, Israel has warned that in no circumstances would it allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. On 28 June, officials and foreign ministers from Iran, China, Germany, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom are set to meet in Vienna to save the deal and avoid the beginning of a potential nuclear race in the Middle East.
The Muddle In The Middle East: A Region In A Default State Of War
Unlike the Korean peninsula, the geopolitical realities are not that simple in the Middle East. To add to the intricacies, the US has an elaborate history in the region since its Iraq invasion of 2003.
What is common to any conflict in the Middle East is the presence, direct or proxy, of either Saudi Arabia or Iran. The two states have engaged in proxy wars across Iraq, Syria, and most recently, Yemen. The proxy wars have been about enhancing their influence in the region, for both countries have the oil economy to back their geopolitical pursuits.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the US and Iran have found themselves estranged. Leading to the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, the revolution saw the emergence of an Islamic Republic up in arms against the western principles of modernisation and secularism. Once the last monarchy had been overthrown in Iran, the state then sponsored efforts across the Middle East, helping Shia militia to challenge monarchies in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the other states.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni dominated state, to counter the growing Iranian influence in the early 1980s, called for the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The charter for the GCC was signed in May 1981 and constituted the three constitutional monarchies of Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, two complete monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Oman, and the federal monarchy of UAE. During its early years, the idea behind the GCC was to safeguard the interests of the monarchies and prevent an Iranian revolution-like situation their states.
Since then, Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in proxy wars across the region. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 to capture its territory and gain hold of its oil fields, it was backed by Saudi Arabia. Though the war lasted until 1988, Iran had been on the offensive since 1982, and hence, Saudi Arabia, along with its allies in the West including the US ensured that Iran was pushed against the wall. By 1988, as the tensions between the US and Iran began to rise, a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations.
For long, Iraq served as a buffer state between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This changed with the invasion of the US in 2003 and the clueless Middle East policy of the West led to a security vacuum between the two states.
This vacuum was then taken over by militant forces banking on the Sunni-Shia divide, and sponsored by Iran across the Middle East. The same proxy warfare continued during the Arab Spring across Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, and Morocco. The warfare intensified in Syria and has now led to a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is backing the government in the country while Iran is sponsoring the Houthi rebels. As of 2018, over 10 million citizens in Yemen face starvation in the prevailing Civil War and most deaths are unaccounted for.
The divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran is so deep that it has rendered the region’s historical animosity against Israel pointless. Today, Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves together in what many across the Middle East term as an ‘unholy alliance’. The coalition has been public with official visits, infrastructure deals, and the purchase of a $250 million spy system by Saudi Arabia from Israel in 2018.
Why Iran Will Not Be An Iraq For The US
The US, even with allies in the region, cannot expect to simply walkover Iran as it did in Iraq in 2003. Even though Iran spends only somewhere around $18 billion its defence annually against $80 billion by Saudi Arabia and over $600 billion by the US, it has a thriving alliance system that constitutes the IRGC, the Houthi rebels, Iraqi paramilitaries, Jihadi forces in Palestine, and the Hamas in the Gaza strip. Thus, assuming if the US even somehow manages to have the first-strike advantage, it will soon find itself dealing with the entire Middle East on fire.
It does not stop here, for the IRGC is a formidable force with a navy larger than that of Iran along with its own cyber and air force. Their recent gunning down of the $100 million US Global Hawk drone was also a testament to the advancements in their technical strength. IRGC also has bases across the Middle East, and thus, is expected to mobilise proxy groups in the event of a US invasion.
While the US may eventually be able to conquer Iran by means of brute force and weaponry, it would have lost a lot more in the region than it would have gained from the downfall of Iran.
Final Word: Calm Down Everyone, We Aren’t Having A World War
One of the benefits of a globalised world is that it is no longer convenient for powerful states to go to war. The same holds true for the current US-Iran situation. Irrespective of what Trump tweets or what Iranian officials say, the states are not going to fight a full-fledged war.
Firstly, the US has seen a drone being gunned down in the past, so it is unlikely that it will go to war to avenge a fallen drone. Even Trump’s response was meek to the drone takedown as he attributed the actions to someone ‘loose and stupid’.
Two, the US has encountered a similar situation with North Korea for years now, and yet, has found itself turning to dialogue rather than destruction. The same will happen in the Middle East. Drones will fall, a few skirmishes similar to what happened in the Gulf of Oman will occur, but all this will enable the two states to get back on the negotiation table.
Three, there is too much for the world at stake. Another fallen state in the Middle East would have Europe stare at an intensifying refugee crisis. Oil prices will skyrocket, depressing economies, further adding to the woes of economic powerhouses across the globe.
Four, war doesn’t work for the US, given how they are still in the economic hangover of the Iraq war that cost them trillions of dollars. Though Trump flexing his muscles against Iran may add to this political credibility in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, a war will only add to his miseries for tough economic decisions would have to be taken back home to fight a war in the Middle East. In an election year, no leader can afford that.
Five, the US has enough lessons from Iraq to not repeat a similar act in Iran. A power vacuum in Iran could lead to the emergence of terrorist groups, similar to ISIS in Iraq, and would lead to the US fighting a decade long war without any exit policy.
Six, the outcome of the war, irrespective of who wins, will not be good for the future of oil. Not only will the world shipping industry lose a critical route, but the developing economies of Asia may also find themselves in fiscal deficits due to surging oil prices, the consequences of which shall be felt across China and the US.
Seven, in the event of a complete breakdown of talks, Iran would strengthen its nuclear programme, which will put the entire Middle East in a nuclear race, a move that shall concern the US, Europe, Russia, and China. Thus, dialogue holds more benefit for everyone in the longer run. A JCPOA 2.0 could well be on the cards without the US as a signatory.
Lastly, both sides realise the futility of a military fallout, as evident by Iran's own admission of not taking down a manned aircraft earlier this week when it gunned down the drone and also that of President Trump who admitted calling off an air strike that would have killed over 150 people.
Thus, while the prospect of a war in the Middle East may appear to be real as tensions escalate, the intricate geopolitics of the region and the prevailing economic inter-dependency across the world shall prevent any war, as it did in the Korean peninsula and recently, in Kashmir.