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Confronting a Dangerous New Reality in the Middle East

The operation carried out by Iran against the Saudi Aramco oil refinery confirmed that the Islamic Republic is pursuing a policy of rapidly escalating aggression in response to the US sanctions against it. The operation further revealed the position of the Trump administration, which appears to be lost in a maze, given the absence of options other than pursing the imposition of sanctions and offering dialogue without preconditions with Tehran.

Iran has responded to the possibility of dialogue with its own preconditions, and by expressing its contempt in an act that is nothing short of a declaration of war. Americans must understand that for Iran’s regime, this is a declaration of war in the full sense of the term, given the fact that it threatens global oil supplies and their safety, which poses a grave threat to the global economy. The Saudi minister of energy, Prince Abdel-Aziz bin Salman, was sufficiently courageous and candid to call matters as they are, rather than resorting to diplomatic euphemisms.

It is clear that Iran’s regime is feeling suffocated and believes that it is facing a conflict, which was recently described by one of its diplomats in Beirut as a slow death, stressing that it will not stand idly by in the face of this ‘slow death’. This acknowledgment is further proof that increasing sanctions – not backing down – is the best means to force the Iranian regime to its knees.

Therefore, the Islamic Republic made up its mind. Its action in response to the US sanctions can be considered more dangerous than closing the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran discovered would be difficult in comparison to hitting targets in the Arabian Gulf region, which is far easier. Today, it hit Aramco refineries. Tomorrow, it will hit water desalination plants. In a nutshell, Iran is testing the ability of the US to remain patient and respond at a time when the regime leadership genuinely believes that President Trump fears engaging in any war, which might affect his chances of reelection in the US presidential elections scheduled for November 2020.

How far is Iran willing to go in its response to the US war? It is clear that it will go far beyond any tolerable level in light of a US administration which has ruled out the military option as long as the target is the Arabian Gulf states, not the US soldiers or bases in the region.

Iran adopts the policy of escalation against the countries partaking in the siege against it, especially in the petrol and gas sectors. It has partaken in dozens of attacks on  Saudi oil facilities, including the recent attack on Aramco facilities. The attack carried a clear message to the kingdom, where dozens of missiles and drones were fired from two sensitive spots in Anbar of Iraq and Ahwaz.

Ahwaz is considered by many to be Iran’s Achilles heel in any war with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, given the popular demands of independence, ethnic affiliation and its cultural, social, intermarriage, linguistic relationships with the Arab countries –  especially the Arabian Gulf – after  signs of Arab support for this occupied region began to emerge.

As for Anbar, it is the hotbed of groups opposed to the Iranian project in Iraq. This point carries a message that Iraq, including the Sunni parties, is effectively under Iranian sovereignty.  It has never been a tool to pressure Iran, unlike Ahwaz. Iran attempts to engage the biggest possible number of countries, especially the European and industrial ones such as Japan, China, Korea and others in the ongoing crisis through the element o exporting oil. This carries a political message that if Iran is not allowed to export oil, all these countries will pay the price.

The other issue which Iran seeks to attain is military confrontation mimicking its war with Iraq where it crushed all the opponents of the regime from the non-Persian peoples in Iran. The country was thrust into a morass which claimed the lives of one million people and left 2 million others disabled. This was boosted by the regime’s four-decade tenure, while analysts expected that Khomeini regime could remain in power for multiple years.

It has long been clear that the Islamic Republic is rapidly escalating its aggression, in the apparent absence of a US administration capable of deterring it. The regime is well aware of the fact that it can exceed many ‘red lines’, stopping short only at the killing of US soldiers. The downing of a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz last June was the best indication of this. At the very last moment, Trump reversed his decision on a military strike, behaving like his predecessor Barrack Obama. He gave as reason that a US response would lead to many civilian deaths, whereas the US had merely lost a drone worth $150 million. 

In light of the current realities, represented by the Iranian escalation towards them coupled with the US heedlessness of this escalation,  the Gulf States should search for a new strategy based on the realities surrounding the status quo. The first of these realities is that Iran, which is incapable of engaging in a direct confrontation with the US, has resorted instead to retaliating in the Gulf itself, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It is important to note that Iranian pressures in Iraq have surged recently in the absence of an effective Iraqi government. The most significant revelation from this pressure is Tehran’s return to courting Moqtada al-Sadr, who recently appeared at a gathering led by the Iranian supreme leader during Ashoura Day celebrations, sitting next to General Qassem Soleimani.

It is no secret that these sectarian militias loyal to Iran, which work under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Units, have put their Iraqi territories at the disposal of the Islamic Republic, with the US standing idly by… at least so far. Will Donald Trump surprise the USA’s Gulf allies and prove that he is different from Barrack Obama, that his sacking of national security adviser John Bolton in no way impacts the confrontation with Iran?

It should no longer be considered a surprise, if the US adopts a different strategy in response to the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, that the Gulf States would adopt an independent policy distancing themselves from the US to a big extent. This policy will be similar to that of Obama, who had no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood taking over power in Egypt after electing Mohammed Morsi as a president in circumstances which could be described at best as suspicions.

On Egypt, several Gulf States, headed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, moved to salvage the situation and support the popular uprising, which led Egypt to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule that had allowed the Iranians to infiltrate the country. It is no secret that a host of Arab countries moved independently to support the choices of the Egyptian people in mid-2013.

When the US hesitates, due to domestic considerations, to take a firm stand towards Iran, this will prompt several countries in the Gulf to reconsider their own positions and policies at a time when Iran is seeking to drive a wedge between the Arab countries. In the end, all the Gulf States are in the same boat and fully capable of understanding the Iranian scheme, currently represented by focusing solely on Saudi Arabia, which will fool nobody.

Simply put, there is now a different reality in the region, especially in the Gulf. The US can confine itself to the policy of strengthening sanctions on Iran. But the Gulf States cannot stand idly by watching the acts of Iranian aggression which target them, especially since there is no sign that Iran is ready to stop at a certain limit, with the regime considering the subject of US sanctions a life or death issue.

The issue of oil is no longer a matter of life or death to the US, which is in a position in which it can dispense with the Gulf States’ oil up to a certain level. However,  it is not the only nation affected, with others worldwide still reliant on supplies from the region, including China, Japan, South Korean and the European countries excepting the UK and Norway. What will the Trump administration do if these countries put pressure on it to ease sanctions on Iran, especially regarding the sanctions on oil exports in return for Iran’s easing of escalation in the Gulf?

The region and the world have entered a new and uncertain phase, given the US confusion caused by Donald Trump’s desire to return to the White House at any cost, even if this price is shaking hands with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and posing for photo-ops with him. That may be a price that the White House occupant is ready to pay. But nobody in the Arab region is ready to bear the consequences of the USA’s potential choice.

Attorney, activist and analyst Aaron Eitan Meyer disagreed. In a brief interview on the issue, he argued that “while US strategy in the Middle East has certainly been less committed than one may desire over the past decades, it is premature to write off the US – or the present administration – even with the looming prospect of rapprochement with Iran.” Meyer continued to note his vehement opposition to US talks with Iran at this point, and argued instead that “while in actual warfare it is usually best to leave a path of retreat for an enemy in order to preserve one’s own forces, that’s not the right paradigm here. The regime is reeling, but it’s critical to understand that it is not a rational actor when it is seeking relief from sanctions any more than when it is out targeting US and allied assets. The president is intimately familiar with principles of negotiating, so I would argue that this is a scenario in which only one side – Iran – needs to buy time, and it would be not only a tactical but a massive strategic error for the US to back down. To our allies, and those persecuted peoples who represent our natural allies, I urge you to remind the western world that you exist, and that helping your cause of freedom is ultimately the best way to defeat the likes of Iran.”

 

 

Mostafa Hetteh, an Ahwazi journalist based in Canada.

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate based in the USA. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42 .

 

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.

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