I have been unimpressed with Western corporate media coverage of the tensions involving Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They repeat the line that Iran is the source of current tensions, that it is a major sponsor of terrorism, that it is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbours and that it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with its attacks on shipping in the Strait. I disagree with much of this, so allow me to explain why.
A few months back the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement (the P5+1 deal involving the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany). Leaked diplomatic cables show that it did so manly because the Obama administration had signed it, not because it was a “bad deal” (in fact, the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain and had complied with all international monitoring conditions). After withdrawing from the deal the US imposed a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran, with most of the bite coming from secondary sanctions on non-US based firms and organisations that do business with the Persian giant.
Let us be clear on this. The US unilaterally withdrew from a viable multinational agreement mainly because of presidential hubris, then unilaterally imposed sanctions not only on Iran but others who may wish to continue to commercially engage with it. The US sanctions are not supported by, and in fact are seen as illegitimate by many countries, including China, Russia and most of the countries in the EU. Yet, because the US has great economic weight, it can use the secondary sanctions in order to force international compliance with its edict.
Until recently the sanctions were not enforced by the military of any country other than the US. But on July 4 the Royal Navy stopped and seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, arguing that it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions (the sanctions only apply to aviation fuel and only cover EU members, which Iran is not). The tanker’s proximity to the colony was fortunate in that Britain has limited autonomous power projection capability in the Middle East but does have a naval garrison on the Rock. So the seizure was as much due to opportunity as it was support for principle.
Iran warned that it would retaliate to this act of “piracy” and this past week it did by seizing two tankers, one of which was UK-flagged (the other was briefly detained and released). The owners of the UK-flagged vessel have not be able to contact it since it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos.
This follows on Iran recently shooting down a US drone over the Strait and the sabotage of four vesels in a UAE port and two merchant ships in international waters that have been attributed to the IRGC. Needless to say, this appears to demonstrate that indeed, a brinkmanship game is being played. But let us disaggregate a few facts.
The UK was informed of the Iranian tanker’s movements by the US, which asked that it be seized when it made the passage from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. The May government complied even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged her and welcomed her ouster. The Iranians know that Teresa May is a lame duck and that Boris Johnson, her likely successor, simply does not have the stomach for a all-in confrontation with Iran when the Brexit mess is ongoing and the government is effectively paralysed on multiple fronts. To be clear: the UK is facing a crisis of governance and the Iranians know this. So any military counter has to come from somewhere else.
It certainly will not come from Europe, Asia or anywhere but the US. That is the rub. The Iranians know that Trump is a classic bully. All bluster and bravado but a coward at heart. When informed of the Iranian’s seizure he first uttered threats but then put distance between himself and the UK by saying that the US does not receive much oil that transits through the Strait and that other nations need to up their military patrols through it and the Persian Gulf if they want their vessels to be safe.
This signals that Trump does not believe that a US-Iran conflict would be existential or done out of necessity and that he does not see alliance commitments as universally binding. This gives him room to refuse UK requests for military assistance in getting the Iranians to resolve the stand-off on its terms. In doing so he effectively has thrown the UK under the bus as a reward for it doing the US bidding with regard to the Iranian tanker now tied up in Gibraltar. So much for that “special relationship.”
Although chickenhawk John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, is keen to shed other people’s blood in order to force an Iranian submission, Trump, like Johnson, does not appear to be inclined to do so. Besides his neo-isolationist proclivities, Trump has undoubtably heard from US military authorities that a conflict with Iran would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a kindergarten party. The US military is stretched as it is, the US public is sick of constant war, a long election year is just beginning and no allies other than Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia are going to be willing to join the US in a fight of its own making.
That is an important point to note. It is clear that for Bolton and other re-cycled neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo, the march to war with Iran is about regime change, not international commerce. US foreign policy elites have never gotten over the Iranian Revolution and the US embassy seizure in 1979, and the US military has since then had a prickly relationship with Iran in its regional sphere influence. US criticism of some of Iran’s more regressive policies as a reason to push for regime change holds little weight given its support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, and regardless of the theocratic nature of the regime Iranian elections are considered by international observers to be among the cleanest in the Middle East (thereby putting the lie to claims that Iran is as authoritarian as other regional autocracies).
The US push for war with Iran is therefore not grounded in concerns about international norms and the specifics of Iranian behaviour but in getting some measure of retribution for what some US elites feel was a great loss of face forty years ago and an ongoing reminder of US powerlessness in specific instances. The trouble for the likes of Bolton and Pompeo is that most world leaders understand their real motivations and so are reluctant to join their war-mongering bandwagon.
The Iranians know this. They know that they have Russia as a military partner and China as an economic lifeline. They know that any military conflict involving them will close the Strait for more than just the duration of hostilities. They not only have one of the largest militaries in the Middle East but they also have proxies like Hezbollah and allies like Syria who will join in what will be a multi-fronted asymmetric war of attrition against the US that will not be confined to the immediate region. They key is for Iran to isolate the US and a few allies in a manoeuvre-based military conflict that avoids short mass-on-mass exchanges and which over time inflicts political and military costs that become unbearable.
Although Bolton may believe in the rhetoric of “effects-based strategy” and therefore assume that any successful kinetic engagement between the US and Iran will be limited, short and intense, the problem with such assumptions is that the adversary may not subscribe to what is taught in US command and general staff colleges. I assume that US military planners understand this.
It is therefore very likely that Iran will get to exchange the British tanker for the ship detained in Gibraltar and that it will be able to continue to make the point that it has the means to disrupt commerce in the sea lanes adjacent to it. The latter is an important tactic for Iran because the price for it ending its maritime disruption campaign is a loosening of the US sanctions regime on it. Unless oil-importing countries step up their own naval protection of ships flagged by or destined for them (which brings with it the possibility of military confrontation with Iran), then they run the risk of economic slowdowns caused by fuel shortages, to say nothing of increased insurance costs and fuel prices as the impasse continues.
In short, it does not appear likely that the US is going to come riding to the rescue of non-US vessels anytime soon and yet will continue to demand that the world bow to its Iranian sanctions regime. Trump and his advisors may see it as a necessary hard choice for US allies but to them it is more likely to be seen as being placed in an untenable position.
Finally, it should be remembered that modern Iran has not engaged in an unprovoked attack on another country. Although it supports and uses irregular military proxies, it is nowhere close to being the sponsor of terrorism that several Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies are. In spite of its anti-Israel rhetoric (destined for domestic political consumption), it has not fired a shot in anger towards it. Its strategic position in the Middle East is as strong now as it ever was. It has complied with the terms of the nuclear control agreement. It has good commercial relations with a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand. It therefore has no incentive to start a conflict even if it does have a strong incentive to turn the tables on the sanctions regime by demonstrating that imposing costs works in many ways and on more than just the targets of sanctions themselves.
It would be wise for Western leaders to put themselves in Iranian shoes when considering the security dilemma in the Persian Gulf, because if anything the root of the current tensions lies not in Tehran but in Washington, DC.