A New War in the Middle East?

In light of recent attacks on shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, security experts are concerned about the diplomatic fallout between the US and Iran. What is the likelihood of the trade war between the US and Iran turning violent?

Background

Iran is the second largest nation in the middle-east bordered by Armenia, The Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The oil-rich nation is centrally located between Eurasia and Western Asia, making it geostrategically important in terms of trade and defense. Iran was governed by a monarchy for centuries until the 1979 Iranian revolution which gave birth to the Islamic Republic of Iran - a parliamentary democracy with a theocracy governed by a “Supreme Leader”. The current “Supreme Leader” of Iran is Ayatollah Khamenei.

Historically, Iran and the US have oscillated between good and bad diplomatic relations with successive US Presidents taking varied approaches towards dealing with Iranian leaders. In the recent past, the Bush Administration cooperated with Iran to work towards a stable Afghanistan but this kind of cooperation was short lived. Obama era policies shifted gears in reverse by imposing heavy sanctions and engaging in cyber-security operations in efforts to disarm a nuclear Iran. President Donald Trump seems to be on a similar path, imposing heavy sanctions on Iran’s energy, shipping, and financial sectors. It seems that the prospect of a disarmed Iran does not satisfy the American President who has pulled out of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal which proposed a plan for the denuclearization of Iran. It is still unclear, however, as to what Trump’s end-game is.

Analysis

2 shipping vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz were recently attacked in what is being known as a “mystery sabotage” attack. This comes a month after 4 other shipping vessels near UAE waters in the Gulf of Oman were attacked in a similar fashion. The shipping vessels were transporting crude oil and chemicals to Asia and the US. These attacks were carried out using what defense experts believe to be limpet mines, which are explosives that can be magnetically attached to ships.

While the UN-led investigation of these incidents is yet to determine the perpetrators, a statement from the investigators suggests that a “state actor” is most probably responsible. Although no-one was seriously harmed in these attacks, they clearly present a dangerous problem to international trade and security.

Following the attacks, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to point fingers at Iran claiming that “Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted.” It is no secret that several American top-dogs are gearing up for war. The US National Security Advisor John Bolton has consistently pushed the prospect of war and spearheaded the revisions of Pentagon’s military plan in the event of a war with Tehran.  Bolton has been pushing for a war with Iran since his time in the Bush Administration. If tensions between the US and Iran continue to escalate unchecked, Bolton’s vision for an Iran war may not be far from reach. Iranian authorities have already warned neighboring nations and encouraged them to prepare for the possibility of armed conflict in the region. The recent attacks on shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz provide the US with an opportunity to increase its Naval presence in Gulf waters. This would be a strategically important move because the Strait is extremely narrow and is a crucial passageway for ships carrying crude oil to the US and Asia.  

A war between the US and Iran would certainly result in the destabilization of the middle east. It is also unlikely that the violence, once incited, would be contained to the middle-east region. It is very possible that Iran would attempt to take advantage of its ties with terror organizations like Hamas in its strategy against the US. American soil would be vulnerable to terror attacks that would devastate the nation.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been competing for dominance in the Middle-East for decades, with both countries engaging in proxy wars in the region. Saudi Arabian officials have also suggested Iran’s involvement in the shipping vessel attacks in the Gulf. With Saudi Arabia being America’s primary ally in the Middle-East, it would be an important player in the event of a war between the US and Iran.

Counterpoint

It is highly probable that the trade war between Iran and the US will not turn violent. Donald Trump has stressed that he does not want to start a new war in the middle east and so has President Rouhani. Despite threats from both sides, the probability of a successful war with Iran is low. Unlike Iraq, Iran is significantly bigger and geographically similar to Afghanistan with mountainous terrains that aren’t conducive to tank-warfare.

It is also important to note that Iran is not the only country against which Trump has imposed sanctions. Tensions in the South China Sea are also rising and a war in Iran would weaken or even destroy America’s economic and military campaign in the East. Trump might not be ready to take a call on this particular trade-off anytime soon.

Assessment

It is our assessment that a war between the US and Iran is unlikely. This is because the American administration itself is currently in two minds regarding the way forward with Iran. Moreover, despite America’s military might, we feel that a war in Iran would be tactically more challenging than previous wars in the middle-east.

We think that Trump’s game-plan regarding Iran is slightly ambiguous. What is the end-game - a denuclearized Iran or a complete regime change? We feel that a complete regime change in Iran would be a lot harder for the US to achieve, especially because there is some level of support for the current Iranian government amongst its people. There seems to be a split in people’s support for the current regime and a war with the U.S might spark a civil war in Iran which could take years to resolve. 

A US-Iran war might harm the economic interests of several nations worldwide, especially since the Gulf is important for oil trade which fuels the global economy. EU nations should also worry about the potential influx of refugees from a war in Iran which would exasperate its existing refugee crisis. We also think that America’s foreign policy in the middle-east is primarily governed by the economic interests in the region. Since a war with Iran would threaten the economies of middle-eastern nations like the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar, they would be opposed to a violent escalation between Iran and the U.S. We predict that both EU and middle-eastern countries will pull out all the stops to prevent a war between the US and Iran.

 

Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77068017@N07/6925502641

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