National and International Issues

The Possibility and Fallout of U.S.-Iran Confrontation in the Gulf

U.S. seems to have learnt no lesson from its ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its all-out support to Libyan rebels to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Under the influence of U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Trump administration repositioned the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. The Pentagon also deployed a U.S. Air Force bomber detachment to the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) in the Gulf. This has been done with the objective of countering purported Iranian assertiveness in the oil-rich region.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton called it a "clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States’ interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force." This has resulted in a cold war between Iran and the U.S. with the potential to escalate into a full-blown war in the region in case of any misadventure or miscalculation between these two countries. 
Presumably, only the dead would see the end of the war in this contemporary anarchic world. The brewing political landscape of the Gulf coupled with the ominous escalation of tensions, mud-slinging and sabre-rattling between the U.S. and Iran have brought both countries on the verge of a disruptive confrontation in the region which could have dire repercussions for the entire Middle East. 
The Trump administration has lately resorted to blacklisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization owing to its purportedly disruptive roles in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. In retaliation, Iran has declared all U.S. forces based in the Middle East as ‘terrorist forces'. This has instigated the U.S. to dispatch its USS Abraham fleet with bombers to the shifting waters of the Gulf with a view to restraining Iran from muscle-flexing and assertiveness which Washington considers as a threat to its allies in the region.
On June 20, Iran shot down an American drone, prompting President Trump to order retaliatory strikes against Iran which he stopped on a short notice. The sabre-rattling has been getting louder since June 13, when several explosions occurred on two oil tankers, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous just outside the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman. That same day, Washington accused Iran of attacking the tankers with limpet mines. There was already the recent incident in the region where four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah were damaged by explosions on May 12. Iran flatly denied the allegations. Even then, Uncle Sam and its Arab-world allies accused Iran of involvement.
What is important to note is that when tensions between two countries are running high, the third party (Israel in this case) often tries to fish in the troubled waters. The escalating tensions in the Gulf seemingly resulted in a kind of a cold war situation between the U.S. and Iran in the Gulf which can escalate into a full-blown hot war in the foreseeable future if prudent measures towards de-escalation are not taken in a timely manner. 
The ongoing brewing and ominous tensions between Tehran and Washington date back to the Trump administration's unilateral withdrawal from the hard-won Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA in May 2018. What has bitterly angered Iran is the fact that despite its full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal (as per reports of the IAEA, Iran had been fully complying with all major provisions of the JCPOA), the Trump administration not only unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year, it has also resorted to imposing more crushing sanctions on the crisis-ridden Iranian economy, especially on its oil exports. 
The U.S. sanctions have resulted in decreasing Iranian oil export in nearly half and augmenting the poverty ratio of the Islamic republic to about 40 percent. After its dismal failure to completely de-nuclearize North Korea, the Trump administration mistakenly thinks that its hard-hitting sanctions could exacerbate Iran's domestic economic issues, thus compelling the Iranian people to take to the streets to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran. 
Ostensibly, this ‘social-engineering' is highly unlikely to dethrone the Rouhani-led government, but it might result in the possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran as a response to the U.S.’ hawkish policies against Tehran. The IRGC commander has threatened that Tehran would block oil shipments through the waterway in response to U.S. calls to ban all Iranian oil exports. 
The Strait of Hormuz through which a third of the world's seaborne oil passes every day, is a strategic artery linking the Middle East crude producers to key markets in the Asia Pacific, Europe, North America and beyond. In 2016, 18.5 million barrels of petroleum were shipped through it every day, making it the world's single most important maritime route for many nations' oil supplies.
This is not the first time that the U.S. and Iran have traded barbs over the closing of the Strait of Hormuz.  In 2016, Iranian naval vessels veered close to American warships in the strait, prompting a U.S. warning that these were incidents that carry a risk of escalation.
The Trump administration is beset with some domestic issues such as the Mueller's report on Russian interference in the last U.S. elections. It is thought that President Trump perceives that the escalation of tensions with Iran may divert public opinion and media pressure away from his controversy-ridden government. Secondly, such a hawkish approach of U.S. towards Iran mostly pleases Israel, hence increasing President Trump's chances of re-election next year. For, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main Israeli lobby in Washington — will fund political campaigns of President Trump and popularize him on TV if the Trump administration continues promoting Israeli interest in the Middle East.
If a full-blown war breaks out, it will engulf the entire Middle East and could turn into a major war in the world. According to certain media reports Israel and Saudi Arabia have already done their preparation in case of war against Iran and, Syria and Lebanon are likely to stand by Iran with the support of the Al-Quds forces of Iran. As a result, this could provide a fertile ground to Daesh to re-organize itself, resurface and restart its reign of terror in the war-torn countries of the Middle East.
Russia will also probably come to shore up Iran against the U.S., thus making any such war a major conflict in the region. Since the Middle East has already been plagued by militancy, civil wars and resultant political chaos, it is imperative for the U.S. and Iran to take to the negotiating table with the objective to find a way out of the current situation.
Pakistan has always played its proactive role in terms of de-escalating tensions in the Gulf through mediation and shuttle diplomacy. Prime Minister Imran Khan has probably tried to play a mediating role to persuade the Saudi leadership, on the sidelines of the OIC's 14th summit in Mecca, to ease the tensions with Iran. It is in Pakistan's greater national interest to play the role of a peace broker between America and Iran so that the ongoing escalating and burgeoning tensions in the Gulf can be contained from drifting out of control. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has already advised the parties involved to resolve the tensions by means of diplomatic negotiations. He categorically stated that Pakistan supports "resolution of all outstanding issues through diplomatic engagement". In a weekly news conference, hours before the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif landed in Islamabad on May 22, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal stated, "We expect all sides to show restraint, as any miscalculated move can transmute into a large-scale conflict."
If the Trump administration withdraws some of the harsh sanctions on Iranian oil exports, Iran will likely restrain its assertiveness in the Gulf and refrain from blocking the Strait of Hormuz. It is in the interest of both Tehran and Washington to de-escalate the tensions so that the region can be saved from a potentially major war and the flow of oil continues unhindered.

The writer is an M. Phil scholar at the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi. He has also served as senior researcher at Pakistan Institute of International Relations (PIIA), Karachi in 2014. 
E-mail: [email protected]

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