An extraordinary game is being played on the West Asian chessboard over the past two months, but here the deployment consists of military forces, provocative rhetoric and symbolic gestures to convey strong messages. These are dragging the region into a conflagration that is unwanted, but possibly inevitable.
In early May, President Donald Trump ended the “waivers” he had provided eight countries to gradually reduce and then end their imports of Iranian oil. In mid-May, four oil tankers were mysteriously attacked off the coast of Fujairah, for which the US immediately blamed Iran, despite the absence of any hard evidence. The US then rushed 2,000 additional troops to the Gulf, with fighter and bomber aircraft and missile batteries — largely a symbolic gesture since there are already 70,000 American soldiers across the region, mainly located at the naval base in Bahrain and the airbase in Qatar.
In June, two more ships were attacked at the mouth of the Gulf — again the US held Iran responsible and again the latter issued strong denials. Iran then brought down an unmanned US drone that it claimed had entered its airspace. President Trump later said that he had ordered a retaliatory attack on Iran, but held back when he learnt it would kill at least 150 Iranians.
But new sanctions were imposed on Iran — largely symbolic. They targeted the travel and financial transactions of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and other dignitaries, and threatened similar action against foreign minister Javad Zarif.
But the tempo of escalation has continued — on July 4, British marines apprehended an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar, claiming it was in its waters and, in violation of UK sanctions, was carrying oil to Syria. Iran vowed retaliation. On July 19, in a dramatic action captured on camera, its forces took control of a British vessel in Gulf waters and towed it to an Iranian port.
The United States then announced that, with the approval of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, it was deploying 500 troops in Saudi Arabia, the first US deployment in the kingdom after 16 years. The deployment is largely symbolic in terms of numbers, but it is significant that the soldiers will be located at the Prince Sultan airbase, outside Riyadh. They had been unceremoniously evicted from this base in 2003 in response to widespread domestic resentment about the presence of non-Muslim forces on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia.
This new development affirms the deep animosity for Iran across the kingdom and popular acceptance of the royal narrative, assiduously cultivated since 2011, that the Islamic Republic has region-wide sect-based hegemonic intentions, threatening Saudi territory, regional status and belief system.
Amidst the din of war drums, some cautious and inconclusive attempts at de-escalation have been reported. Mr Zarif said in New York on July 18 that, in a “substantial move”, Iran was willing to subject itself to “formal and permanent enhanced inspections” of its nuclear programme in return for the permanent lifting of US sanctions. There are also unconfirmed reports that, during his New York visit, Mr Zarif met US Senator Rand Paul, who is promoting a diplomatic initiative to break the deadlock with Iran.
Three developments have further complicated the political and military standoff in the Gulf. One, to pressure the European signatories to the nuclear deal to ease sanctions, Iran has deliberately exceeded the enrichment limits it is allowed under the agreement.
Two, the US has proposed a “collective maritime security plan” to protect Gulf shipping. Denying it is a military coalition, the US refers to it as a “sentinel operation” in terms of which, while countries will remain responsible for the safety of their own ships, the US will provide surveillance, intelligence and military support. So far, the UK has been reluctant to back this plan, viewing it as a US attempt to pull European nations out of the nuclear agreement and make them partners in its economic war on Iran.
This British position could change due to the third development — Boris Johnson becoming UK’s Prime Minister. British commentators fear that Britain will now be pulled into the confrontation with Iran, not as an equal partner of the United States, but as its “poodle”. News reports have asserted that the apprehension of the Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4, when the Tories were preoccupied with their leadership crisis, was due to the pressure exerted on Britain by Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, thus exposing it to Iran’s retaliatory action later that month.
As the US continues to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, it is still difficult to understand what the US gameplan is. While Mr Trump calls for a “better” nuclear deal and rejects war, his unilateral withdrawal from the agreement and reimposition of onerous sanctions on Iran, buttressed by augmentation of military forces and aggressive rhetoric, have made a diplomatic engagement impossible.
There are larger issues at stake as well. Iran, with its fervent commitment to its Islamic revolution, its anti-imperialist rhetoric, its opposition to Israel’s policies, and its insistence on a regional security arrangement without foreign presence, projects a challenge to the US-led world order. This has encouraged the more aggressive among American officials, such as Mr Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, to pursue harsh economic sanctions and even possible military conflict to realise regime change.
In this effort, they are supported by Mr Trump’s political backers — the evangelists, the right-wing members of the Israeli lobby and his regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s strategic culture, shaped by its rich civilisation, its deep sense of national humiliation during the colonial era and its experience of isolation and victimisation during the Iran-Iraq war, has nurtured in its people a strong sense of national pride and self-respect and a refusal to succumb to pressure.
Thus, the deep divide between the American and Iranian worldviews and interests has put them on a collision course. But the US hostility is also pushing Iran closer to Russia and China and, ironically, it is promoting the new world order that the United States dislikes so intensely.
The writer is a retired diplomat who has served as India’s ambassador to several West Asian capitals...