As the popular Chinese saying goes, it is better to have a good neighbor than a brother far off. Against a backdrop of escalating crisis in the Middle East — between Iran and the US, this saying may be reverberating in the Gulf and beyond in the region.
Iran has been in the crosshairs of the US and its Middle Eastern allies — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Israel — for decades now. A watershed moment came with the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, when countries like India and China and those of the European Union — all of whom have significant energy and economic stakes in the Persian state — heaved a sigh of relief, as western imposed sanctions for violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the country were lifted. Only America’ Mideast allies have consistently lobbied for the deal to be rescinded and sanctions re-imposed on Iran, as they did not find the deal firm enough and would allow Iran to continue with its nuclear weapons program after a passage of time.
With its backing of the Syrian regime, arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen where they show no sign of backing down, and its growing influence in neighboring Iraq, Iran seemed to be going from strength to strength, consolidating the Shi’ite arc across the region. Removal of sanctions allowed it to start selling oil in the international market and economically engage with the international community.
US President Donald Trump is now seeming to do what former US ambassadors, including President Barack Obama, would have wanted to but had backed out from – taking on Iran. He pulled out of the JCPOA much to the dismay of his EU allies, re-imposed sanctions on Iran, and ceased waivers for other countries close to the US, like Japan, South Korea, India. He is now threatening Iran militarily, after despatching troops, naval carriers and bombers to the region.
With its economy squeezed, Tehran tried drumming up regional and diplomatic support but without much success. Iran warned that if by July 8, European powers who had been a signatory to the JCPOA could not save the deal, then it would start enriching uranium to a higher level. There had been attacks on oil installations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Iran threatened to close the straits of Hormuz through which an estimated one third of the world’s sea borne oil passes, as well as all the LNG pipelines from Qatar. Shutting off the straits would be an economic catastrophe for the world.
On June 20, 2019, Iran shot down a US surveillance drone which it said had entered Iranian airspace, a claim denied by Washington which said the aircraft was above international waters. The following day it was reported that President Trump had ordered strikes against Iran but called them off at the last moment, saying such an attack would not have been a proportionate one. Instead the United States was reported to have launched cyber attacks against Iranian missile control systems and a spy network in retaliation for the drone incident, the success of which had been denied by Tehran.
With National Security advisor John Bolton in Jerusalem, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh, Trump announced fresh sanctions, targeting the leadership of the country beginning with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his office and all those close to him. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK and the US have released a joint statement condemning Iran’s “recent actions in the region….its destabilizing activities in Yemen and the attacks on oil tankers off Fujairah in the UAE and in the Gulf of Oman.” Pompeo was expected to announce a kind of regional alliance to defend the Strait of Hormuz, no doubt being spooked by Iran’s warning to close the shipping lanes, and the numerous attacks on tankers and oil installations in the Gulf.
Yet, between all these warnings and threats, it seems no one in the Middle East really wants a war. Inside Israel, strategists have long warned that if the US were to attack, Iran would in retaliation strike Israel. While no blame has directly been apportioned to Iran regarding the attacks in the UAE and Saudi’s oil installations, they prove that these countries are also within strike range of Iran. Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz said, as reported by the Israeli media, that “Iran may fire rockets at Israel” in case of war with US. No doubt he had the memory of Iraqi scud missiles landing on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
Iran, for all its bravado, also does not want war. The earlier sanctions have hurt its economy and the regime of the ayatollahs is under internal pressure.
None of America’s Middle East allies would want a war to break out in the region, even as they would like to see Iran weakened. Sanctions may slowly but surely weaken Iran from within but its military is battle hardened, and its proxies active in Lebanon and Yemen. If Hezbollah and Iranian military advisors had contributed significantly to keep President Bashar al Assad in power in Syria and to defanging the Syrian rebels, then Hezbollah had also made sure in the last war with Israel in 2006 that there were no victors. Israel had to retreat in that war, and all throughout the Syrian civil war, this front had been quiet. Israel will not wish to face a similar situation all over again now. Israeli strategists, while wishing for a weak Iran, have been speaking out against war.
In spite of US and British backing, the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen — now in its fourth year — shows no signs of any military victories as yet. They are caught in a quagmire without any honorable exit strategy. If anything, the Iran-backed Houthis against whom the coalition is waging the war seems to be more defiant than ever. A drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha civilian airport which wounded 26 and killed one person had been claimed by them. The militaries of the US’s gulf allies are not battle hardened enough and cannot afford to open another front.
Iran is being weakened from inside, but it is united in the face of an external threat. A 2018 report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that while much of Iran’s weapons are obsolete, its ballistic and cruise missiles and air defense systems remains strong. The country still has a strong military, is battle hardened with years of experience and rides high on its national identity.
None of America’s Middle Eastern allies would want to be in the line of fire, even if what they had wished for — US action against Iran — was to be granted. Moreover, with Jared Kushner’s peace plan for the Middle East already being called a flop, Israel will be challenged with another bout of agitation amongst the Palestinians, while protests have already broken out in many parts of the Arab world.
Therefore, calls for negotiations keep alternating with threats from all sides. The UAE’s exuberant Minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted on June 23 after Iran’s drone attacks that “Tensions in the Gulf can only be addressed politically”, and the crisis in the Gulf region “requires collective attention, primarily to de-escalate and to find political solutions through dialogue and negotiations” and “Regional voices [are] important to achieve sustainable solutions”.
The following day Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir in an interview to Le Monde newspaper said the kingdom was committed to working with its allies to stop Iran’s “aggressive” behavior, but said Riyadh did not want to go to war with it. But it warned of “very very strong reaction” in case Tehran did go ahead and disrupt shipping lanes by closing the Strait of Hormuz. More than 50 percent of the crude exported by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq and Kuwait pass through these straits. Gulf states like Qatar and Oman have not joined in the chorus for rescinding the JCPOA and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stands divided on the issue.
Trump also wants to avoid war — embarking on the path of even harsher sanctions and building up a coalition to guard the Strait of Hormuz — as he seeks reelection, wants to keep oil prices down, and finds an honorable exit for US troops from Afghanistan where special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will be embarking on the seventh round of talks with the Taliban, with other troops bogged down in Iraq. The American public does not have much appetite for war either, precisely the very factor that stopped Obama from following through with his “red lines” in Syria.
Iran, for all its bravado, also does not want war. The earlier sanctions have hurt its economy and the regime of the ayatollahs is under internal pressure. The recent sanctions have been squeezing it too as renewed sanctions had more than halved oil exports to one million barrels per day from a peak of 2.8 million in 2018. On June 24, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by Iranian news agency as saying, “We welcome diffusion of tensions in the region. We do not want rise of tensions.”
No doubt all in the Middle East would rather have the proverbial good neighbors. The fresh set of sanctions targeting the Supreme Leader and his office and its circle will no doubt seriously weaken the regime. Yet it would be better than the cost of war for all. Iran would now truly be in the camp with the Russians and the Chinese.