A number of terrorist attacks have shaken the Arab Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates admitted to having been targeted on land and sea respectively. The Houthis claimed to have inflicted damage on Saudi Arabia’s petroleum infrastructure using seven armed drones. An initial US military probe points to Iranian-backed proxies for planting explosives on four tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leaving gaping holes of five to ten feet in each just below the water line, near Fujairah port – a refueling hub for tankers lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. In 2010, a bomb ripped through a Japanese tanker while it was docked about 22 kilometers off Fujairah port.
Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih termed the drone attack on pumping stations of a vital oil pipeline in the Riyadh region as “an act of terrorism.” He stated that threats to global oil supplies necessitated countermeasures against “terrorist groups behind such destructive acts.” In a more recent statement, the Saudi government blamed Iran squarely for the attacks. Iran’s initial response was one of shock. Tehran’s spokesman termed the attacks as “worrisome and dreadful” while seeking an independent investigation. However, on May 16, the newly-appointed IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami in a defiant tone gave a rallying call knowing the pressure Iran was under after the attacks on oil tankers and oil infrastructure, stating, “We’re at the apex of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy which aims to break the perseverance of the Iranian nation. Today’s the most destiny-making time since the Islamic revolution.”
Implementing the Red-line?
Iran has repeatedly threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz if US sanctions continue to deny her the right to export oil. The IRGC’s war games along with its ever-ready swarms of speedboats and diverse types of long and short-range missiles provide Iran with the readiness and capability to follow through on its threats.
On May 16, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Admiral Ali Fadavi to the position of deputy commander and the former Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi to the position of deputy coordinator in the IRGC.
Admiral Fadavi will fill the post left vacant after Major General Hossein Salami’s promotion. In his last post he was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.
Gearing up for an Effective Response
In sync with its policy of maximum pressure, Washington has deployed the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers in allied Gulf states. The United States has updated a military plan that envisions approximately 120,000 troops being deployed to the Middle East should Iran attack US forces or accelerate its work on its nuclear program.
Even with the existing arsenal in the GCC, the United States and its Gulf allies can be decisive if hostilities break out with Iran. However, as the war of words escalates between the two sides, the Saudi-led operations against the Houthis are set to intensify. The militia which was planning to launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia was simultaneously withdrawing from Al Hudaydah port in a classic display of deception.
As much as Iran will try to avoid direct war with the United States and its Arab allies, it will increasingly rely on IRGC assets in Yemen and elsewhere in the peninsula. Already, the Qatari media outlet – Al Jazeera – has been reporting favorably for the Houthi militants while allocating greater air time to cover Iran’s version of events.
Bull in a China Shop
Fresh US sanctions and its decision to not extend sanctions waivers for the countries importing Iranian oil have become Iran’s pretext for its recent provocations. US sanctions emanate from the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it believes that it neither limits Iran’s missile program nor compels it to withdraw its mercenaries from the Middle East.
According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the demands from Iran include ceasing all uranium enrichment, ending the proliferation of ballistic missiles, releasing dual nationals held in Iranian prisons, cutting off support for Iranian proxy groups throughout the Middle East and improving human rights and public freedoms.
As long as Donald Trump remains in the White House, there’s little likelihood of the United States and Iran sitting across the table to address outstanding issues, particularly as Iran has refused to initiate confidence-building measures such as ceasing further missile testing or withdrawing its militias from across the Middle East. The Persians, so far, have sent conflicting messages. Firstly, it has the means to inflict a heavier cost on its enemies in case of a war. Secondly, the recent provocations were an expression of Iran’s rage and readiness to teach the United States and its allies a befitting lesson. Thirdly, it termed the terror attack “worrisome” while seeking an investigation. This multidimensional posturing leaves one confused as to whether Tehran respects the international order or seeks to disrupt it through heavily armed proxies and its belligerent war games.
Limited Scope for Diplomacy?
Both sides see the conflict as a zero-sum game but, in fact, no one wants a limited or a full-scale war. Tehran knows that its economy won’t be able to withstand the pressures of war while its neighbors won’t extend any support to it through supplies or any other means. In the case of subversive activities, the United States and its allies will be justified in going after them unlike before. The United States’ western allies are opposed to a new war in the Middle East. Germany, France and the UK will take a different approach towards Iran than the United States. Interestingly, France and the UK both have naval bases in the Gulf and won’t like to be part of any armed hostilities. Their primary interest, however, will be an uninterrupted flow of oil to Europe. This is a dilemma for Iran as it risks upsetting the Europeans by even attempting to block the Strait of Hormuz. China, the largest trading partner for both the GCC as well as Iran won’t sit on the fence to watch oil prices rise exponentially and for its supplies to come to a grind.
China, by all means, is best placed to mediate between the Gulf states and Iran. However, Trump will see the domestic benefit of standing firm against Iran especially as presidential elections approach in 2020. In spite of this, he would still not welcome an all-out conflict with Tehran as stated by the US ambassador in Saudi Arabia. For President Hassan Rouhani, tensions in the Gulf pose a domestic challenge. The hardliners will score political points against the government for its war of words but without any action. The opposition may take out ultra-nationalistic rallies and use them to criticize the government for Iran’s socio-economic problems and its poor judgment at the regional and global levels. The IRGC may not totally side with the hardliners for it needs the Rouhani government’s support in the face of recent sanctions imposed on it by the United States. The Revolutionary Guards must be tensely awaiting a retaliatory strike on Iran’s naval or commercial fleet. Such a revengeful attack will be portrayed as a threat to the revolution to muster public support. Barring proof of Iran’s direct involvement, the United States and its Arab allies will continue to pound the Houthis besides squeezing the IRGC’s assets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Germany, France and the UK have a window of communication with Iran and can help deflate tensions with the help of China and Russia. The limited room for mediation won’t extend beyond the recent sabotage incident. A multilateral fire-fighting exercise may cool tensions but Iran’s fury against US sanctions targeting its oil sector won’t disappear anytime soon.