Game of Thrones- Middle East Chapter

How Dangerous are the Recent Tensions between Iran and the US?
Analysis20.05.2019Yara Asmar

Iran is not seeking war, nor the United States of America. Yet, the prospects of a new war in the Middle East were intensively discussed recently in the European diplomatic and strategic spheres. In this article, we aim to reflect the Middle Eastern perspective on this issue while arguing the reasons why the prospects of a US war against Iran are far to be fetched. 

The recent activities of Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf announced a new chapter in the story of the Iranian-American relationship. Since his withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal on May 8, 2018, Donald Trump has been trying to push for a foreign policy aiming at isolating Iran from its region and the international market through economic sanctions and a diplomacy of pressure. In response to such policy, Iran was holding back to keep the agreement and to secure a minimum of moral high ground and an international support. However, Iran’s calculations have changed when, in April 2019, the Trump administration decided to revoke key sanctions waivers allowing Iran to sell some of its oil to China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey and to benefit -to a certain extent - from its nuclear program.  

In this context of power struggle, Iran rebooted openly its activity in Iraq, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf, while provoking with such actions the US’ closest allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. The move taken by the US added to the tension as it opted for a direct intervention by sending an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region. The US authorities described the move as a deterrence strategy dissuading Iran from taking any aggressive action against US interests. Despite such an announcement, the US military action was perceived as an alarming turnout in the course of the events especially that the US administration has been avoiding direct interventions in the Middle East since the breakout of the Syrian conflict.

The Europeans fear a war against Iran for two main reasons; (1) being cornered and having to choose between the US and their Middle Eastern allies and Iran, and (2) the collapse of the nuclear deal and its economic benefits. In this stance, the perception of the European leaders is heating up an internal debate on the prospects of a new war in the Middle East while the indicators in the region do not reflect except a “show-off muscles politics”. The indices of war are not prevailing. Yet, at this point of direct confrontation, the different players need to re-create a new formula for the balance of power. 

Iran and the Need for a Re-balance of Horror 

What actually happened? According to Dr. Mohanad Hajj Ali, Director of Communications and Fellow Carnegie Middle East Center, Iran is demonstrating its capabilities in challenging the Americans sanctions. The attacks on the ships in the Strait of Hurmuz is a direct message to the Americans that Iran has access to the main oil paths that link the Persian Gulf to East Asia and Europe. The escalations of hostilities reflect a status of truce, according to Hajj Ali. Iran is not seeking a war, General Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced on Sunday, May 19, 2019. “The difference between us and them is that they are afraid of war and don’t have the will for it,” the leader of IRGC said, as quoted by local news agency Fars. This statement of Salami came to reconfirm the announcement of Ayatollah Khamenei on the eighth day of the auspicious month of Ramadan asserting that “neither a war will happen; nor we will negotiate”. According to Khamenei, Iran will resort to the Economy of Resistance to counter “inhumane sanctions imposed by the United States”. In other words, Iran needs to build its own paths towards an independent economy that does not depend on foreigners. 

Time to test Allies’ Authenticity 

Part of its policy of resistance, Iran tried to scare off its own friends and threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Deal unless the Europeans, Chinese, and Indians find ways to commit with a concrete plan to the latter. Iran knows that at this point it has the upper-hand especially that the European-American relations are not at their best. 

The Iranian position pushed the Europeans to publicly express their reluctance in engaging in a war to support the USA (as stated in the New York Times “War With Iran? Count Us Out, Europe Says”). And as Iran has given the European Union, China, and Russia 60 days to fulfill, an ultimatum that has already been rejected by EU leaders. However, they remain "committed" to keeping the nuclear deal alive and they're urging Iran not to abandon the agreement.

The test of authenticity showed that the US is not capable to accumulate support before launching the war. According to Hajj Ali, in case the US decides to launch strikes, it needs the European support at the Security Council. And by far, this support is not secured especially that the Iranians relaunched their attempts to resave the nuclear deal on Friday May 17, 2019, after Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visit to China. 

Iran and the US… an Everlasting Story

The everlasting love-hate relationship between Iran and the US makes that these two countries are capable to understand their regimes’ defects and opportunities. According to Hajj Ali, “Iran, through the nuclear deal and its Foreign Minister who is close to the West, was able to develop relations with the Democratic Party of the US”. In this respect, these relations will help Iran in avoiding a war from inside the American Congress. Some argue that Trump might resort to the 9/11 use of force resolution without congressional approval. Yet, it is easy to contest such theory since Iran did not participate in the 9/11 attacks. 

The channels of communication between Iran and the US are opening progressively starting with the visit of the Swiss President Ueli Maurer, whose nation has facilitated communication between the US and Iran since they broke diplomatic ties in 1979. Furthermore, Washington’s willingness to relaunch diplomatic paths were also reflected by a phone call between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, another long-time intermediary between the US and Iran. In this respect, some analysts observe that the escalations against Iran are comparable to the ones launched against North Korea. In other words, Trump is seeking to repeat with Ayatollah Khamenei or President Hassan Rouhani what he did with Kim Jong Un. 

In a nutshell, the changes happening recently in the Middle East are quite similar to the mechanisms of tectonic plates. A sudden displacement of crusts might have led to a deadly earthquake. Yet, the recurrence of consecutive mild seisms is nothing but a sign of reposition of the different layers. The option of a war breakout in the region is still possible, however, at this point, with the different proxy conflicts and the world economic challenges, we do not know to what extent the US or Iran are willing to engage in an armed conflict.