Tensions have escalated sharply in the Middle East after a massive military build-up by the United States against Iran and acts of sabotage against international vessels in Gulf of Oman and Saudi oil installations.
The situation has progressively deteriorated over the past six weeks with Washington first labelling Iran’s regular military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a terrorist organization, followed by cancellation of the sanctions waivers given to some of the countries for importing oil from Iran, and then the deployments of an aircraft carrier, the B-52 bombers task force, F-15 fighters and an amphibious transport dock to the region.
Furthermore, there has been a constant drip of media reports that a plan for deployment of 120,000 troops for land invasion of Iran was being discussed by top Trump administration security officials. And to top it up, US military officials have announced the commencement of ‘deterrence flights.’ The heavy handed US actions are said to be in response to an unspecified threat from Iran against its interests in the region.
Experts have begun drawing parallels between the latest escalation with Iran, the gravest so far in long history of inimical relations between the two countries, and the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Others see a closer resemblance of the current chain of events with the 1964 Tonkin incident that led to US involvement in Vietnam War.
While there is a consensus that US has been unilaterally escalating against Iran, Tehran has blamed the ‘B’ Team, comprising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, as the real reason behind the situation. The Iranians think that President Trump, who in his run for presidency, advocated against military interventions on foreign soils and is business-minded has been pushed into this direction by what they call the “war mongering B-Team”.
US could be using a mix of economic and military tactics to force Tehran to come to its terms, but there are limits to such a strategy. It is well known that accidents may happen during dangerous escalations. Probably the Fujeira incident in which Saudi Arabia claimed that couple of its commercial vessels along with one each from UAE and Norway had suffered sabotage off UAE’s coast; and more recently the claimed drone attack on Saudi state-owned Aramco oil facilities have served to heighten the turmoil and may have provided the needed pretext for the crisis to move further towards a military conflict.
The consequences of the American actions are too serious. Surge in oil prices in the international market after Saudi claims of sabotage are just an early indicator of things to come. As a matter of fact not only the economic and humanitarian costs of the conflict would be too high and peace and stability of the already fragile region would be at stake, but Europe, too, can face unpredictable consequences. European experts have warned that Europe would be directly affected if Iran was destabilised or pushed to war. It is for this reason that European leaders haven’t appeared too enthusiastic about Trump’s new adventure.
Top diplomats from EU countries categorically conveyed their discomfort with the US posturing on Iran during their meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his unplanned Brussels trip for briefing European allies on confrontation with Iran.
Pompeo has struggled to sell war with Iran to its allies other than the so-called ‘B-Team.’ Spain withdrawing its frigate from the US build-up in Gulf; senior British general contradicting Pompeo’s claims of threats to US troops in Iraq and Syria; Iraqi authorities being sceptical about American plans; and uneasy meetings in Brussels are just some of the indicators that the world isn’t ready for a new US-led war.
Meanwhile, in US a bipartisan bill seeking to halt Trump’s march towards war has been introduced in the Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, tweeted: “We cannot let the Trump Admin drag us into yet another war in the Middle East. This is exactly why the President doesn’t have the constitutional authority to declare war. That is Congress’s job – and that is why I’m supporting this legislation to prevent a war with Iran.”
Diplomacy has also begun working quietly to defuse the situation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after talks with Secretary Pompeo said he: “hopes reason will triumph” and that Moscow will work “to ensure this situation does not descend into a military scenario.” Pompeo later met with President Putin, which was the highest level contact between the two sides in over a year.
Iran has so far acted quietly and maturely. It has played down the situation as “psychological war in the region” and its leader Ayatollah Khamenei has ruled out war saying “We don’t seek a war, and they don’t either. They know it’s not in their interests.”
Pakistan, meanwhile, has been watching the developing situation from the side lines because of lack of leverage with the parties to the conflict and closeness to Saudi Arabia and UAE, the two central characters in this episode. Senior government ministers have given vague statements on the issue. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told National Assembly Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs that the government was examining the situation. Meanwhile, Minister for Maritime Affairs Ali Zaidi, at a seminar on Iran, categorically said war was unlikely.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org