By Shashi Malla
• United States & Iran: Spiraling Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz/ Gulf of Oman
Strait of Hormuz
Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz/Gulf of Oman have been rising intensely – nearly spiraling out of control – following a number of oil tanker blasts. The Persian Gulf whose bordering maritime states are major sources of the world’s mineral oil and gas, is connected to the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz. This strait is one of the most important waterways globally and is particularly crucial for oil/gas/ subsidiary products from the Gulf region.
About one-fifth of global oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz, amounting to 17.4 million barrels per day in the first half of 2018. Total global demand in 2019 is estimated at about 100 million barrels per day ( DeutscheWelle/DW). At the same time, the Strait of Hormuz is equally important as a transport route for liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the small emirate of Qatar.
This strategic route connects many different powers and oil market players, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar. The three major Asian powers – China, Japan and India – are dependent for their oil and gas supplies from this region, and are not particularly happy about the unnecessary escalation of tensions.
At the narrowest point in the strait between Iran in the north and Oman in the south, the strait is less than 50 kilometers wide, but the actual width of the navigable channel for the huge tankers is only two kilometers in each direction, meaning that the waterway at this neuralgic location can be easily controlled. It is, therefore, not surprising when the strait is the centre of attention when regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia are at daggers drawn. When a external power – and a superpower at that – enters the scene, it is then a veritable combustible mixture.
Iran has the largest navy in the region. Iranian Maj.Gen. Mohammad Bagheri warned sometime back that the strait could be closed completely should tensions continue. He was, of course, referring to the United States’ extremely hostile actions of “maximum pressure” and very effective economic sanctions, and in return promising ‘maximum resistance’. Bagheri pointed out very tellingly: “if our oil doesn’t get shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, other nations’ oil won’t either.”
The Trump administration, on its part, has time and time again warned in no uncertain terms that any attack on America’s or its allies’ [Saudi Arabia, UAE] interests would be responded more than fittingly. Even any casual observer can note that the hawks in the Trump administration – Secretary of State [SoS] Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton are just itching for a fight with Iran and ‘let slip the dogs of war’.
The US Congress has been insisting that President Trump does not have the authority to wage war against Iran. The so-called ‘war powers’ rest with Congress. However, instead of targeting Iran’s regular armed forces, Trump could order US forces in the region to attack “terrorists” — the “Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps”, a branch of Iran’s armed forces, which was conveniently classified as a “foreign terrorist organization” sometime back by the Trump administration. There is surely method in his madness!
Tanker Attacks & the Spiraling of Tensions
After last week’s attacks on two additional oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – a Norwegian and a Japanese – the blame game has degenerated to one of smoke and mirrors. The crews were forced to abandon ship near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. The incident came a month after an attack on four tankers in the same area. The United States released video evidence to implicate Iran – showing an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers shortly attack (NYT).
Tehran denied the allegations. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif wrote on Twitter that US blame for the attack came without “a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence” and that it amounted to “sabotage diplomacy”. However, according to “Foreign Policy”, a leading US journal on international affairs, “The May bombings, some analysts say, appeared to be a low-intensity, carefully planned message that Iran can interfere with one of the world’s most important chokepoints at will. The latest attacks ratchet up the volume of that defiance.”
A leading US expert , Ariane Tabatabai [co-author with Dina Espandiary of “Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China] tweeted “Iran has played a whole military doctrine around the notion of plausible deniability. So, ‘Iran says it didn’t do it,’ doesn’t cut it as a reason.” In fact, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran meeting both the President and the Supreme Leader at the very moment of the ‘hostile incident’. It may have been a subtle hint to indicate the extreme risks of instability in the region. But the possibility of miscommunication between Washington and Tehren was a given constant (Council on Foreign Relations).
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation, saying: “It’s very important to know the truth. And it’s very important that responsibilities are clarified.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned against assigning blame for the incident until a “thorough and unbiased international probe” had been completed. It added that the United States’ “Iranophobic” stance had “artificially” fueled tensions.
After the incident, China’s President Xi Jinping said Beijing would promote the development of ties with Iran regardless of how the situation would develop. “Xinhua”, China’s official news agency, reported that Xi made the pledge while meeting his Iranian colleague, Hassan Rouhani, on the sidelines of a high-profile summit of the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” in Kyrgyzstan last Friday. Rouhani later described the US as a “serious threat to regional and global stability.”
The news of last Thursday’s attacks on the two tankers, one of which is owned by a Japanese company, came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on an official visit to Iran. Japanese officials have confirmed that the incident would be discussed at the forthcoming G20 meeting in Osaka [Trump is expected to attend], which will also involve energy and environment ministers.
The only unequivocal international support for the Trump administration came from the UK, currently in the twin throes of leaving the European Union (Brexit) and choosing a new Conservative leader-cum-prime minister. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said unambiguously: “Our own assessment leads us to conclude that responsibility for the attacks almost certainly lies with Iran. These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilizing Iranian behavior and pose a serious danger to the region.” He added the coup de grace: “No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible”, calling on Iran to “cease all forms of destabilizing activity.”
According to Philip H. Gordon, Senior Fellow at the “Council on Foreign Relations”, the Trump administration faces multifaceted challenges because it has the [extremely bad] reputation for making false statements: “The perception that it is looking to provoke a conflict with Iran undermines the credibility of its allegations.” Trump has, after all, elevated shamelessness to a refined art. He is willing to say anything that will benefit him, heedless of traditional rules of civility, decency, consistency or honesty.
When Trump calls for renewed bilateral talks, this sounds hollow, because of his ‘scorched earth’ policy in foreign affairs. He has effectively destroyed the ‘diplomatic bridges’ for fruitful talks to be made possible. There is the sense that his administration is taking the relentless path towards military confrontation. By targeting Iran, the US is risking a regional conflagration where all the countries (including its closest allies) – whether currently involved or not – would suffer.
As William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, has succinctly stated: “The risk is that hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington become mutual enablers, going up a very unsteady escalatory ladder” (International NYT, June15-16, 20190.
There is little doubt that US sanctions have caused much economic damage, and Iran’s leaders must be deeply concerned about further sanctions or even the use of force by the United States. At the same time, the Iranian leaders must b
e aware that the US Congress and the American people do not want a military conflict with Iran. But at the same time, they have to find a way out of the terrible sanctions regime and give relief to their own people. Unfortunately, Iran’s clerical government also has a reputation problem: “There are few actors in the world that have less credibility than Donald Trump and the Iranian regime. So that even U.S. allies at the moment are confused about what happened,”said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace.
Iran is expected to announce a further retreat from its commitment under the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers. According to the country’s “Tasnim” news agency, Iran will likely begin increasing enriched uranium stocks and producing heavy water at the Arak facility. Iran already stopped abiding by some obligations of the agreement last month.
Richard N. Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an astute observer of current world politics, has argued that Iran’s unique political-religious system is strong enough to withstand US economic pressure and sabre rattling. But sustained US economic warfare could lead to actual ‘hot’ warfare. There is a very real third possibility between a very costly and unnecessary war and an unlikely regime change, and that is to explore diplomacy, but not “all or nothing” diplomacy: “It is sometimes sufficiently ambitious to seek to limit competition, rather than eliminate it” (Project Syndicate/Republica, June 18, 2019). Wise words, but they will probably fall on deaf ears.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]