The recent crisis between the US and Iran is an outcome of the fragile security dynamics of the Middle East. The deployment of two US warships, USS McFaul (DDG-74) and USS Gonzalez (DDG-66) in the Persian Gulf has intensified the tensions between Iran and the US. The Middle East, unfortunately, has remained a victim of intra and extra-regional security frictions. The current crisis between Iran and the US has also attracted focus from European powers. Firstly, powers like Germany, the United Kingdom and France are party to the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran, and secondly, the Middle East has, for long, been the strategic backyard of Europe. If it remains fragile for longer time, the spillover effects of this crisis can also impact Europe. The ongoing migrant crisis has caught the attention of European governments and multilateral institutions such as the European Union.
The Trump administration is taking the Iranian question seriously. However, while defending the decision to withdraw from Syria, President Donald Trump had said that America was not going to be the “policeman of the Middle East”. But yet again it is the centripetal force of the Middle Eastern dynamics, which has led the US to undertake active engagement in the region. Trump often called those wars ‘stupid’ where the US was engaged in the world, wars started by his predecessors; and that is one of the reasons why he wants America to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. But it is surprising to see the same Trump administration beating the war drums against Iran, and in an apparent hurry to bring Tehran to heel.
According to Karim Sadjadpour, President Trump often does not hesitate while referring to broader foreign or defence policy issues concerning America, while Khamenei prefers private discussions concerning Iran.
The crisis started when the Iranian forces shot down the US surveillance drone on June 20, 2019. If one looks at the pages of US-Iranian relations since the Iranian Revolution, there were many ways where chances of confrontation remained high and those of collaboration low. As the things unfold, we have seen that both the states do not want war, but one cannot rule out the possibilities of brinkmanship that might lead to a crisis that will engulf the entire region. The costs of war would be horrific keeping in view the capabilities of both the US and Iran.
The recent crisis between the US and Iran is an outcome of the fragile security dynamics of the Middle East
Apparently, the US strategy seems to be to limit the Iranian role in the Middle East, while the Iranian strategy revolves around pleading its case against the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
The situation is still grim. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, during an interview to BBC recently said, “No one would be safe” in a conflict. He added: “American weaponry is going into our region, making our region ready to explode…If they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles.” Iran, which has felt the need to abide by the treaty, may now begin to test limits of its literal commitment to the treaty.
On July 19, the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on a key shipping route. HMS Duncan has joined frigate HMS Montrose to escort vessels sailing under the British flag through the Strait of Hormuz. The detention of an Iranian oil tanker in the Gibraltar and the quid pro quo detention of a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf signalled that the two sides are about to up the ante. However, at the same time, the decision by the authorities in the Gibraltar to not seize the Iranian oil tanker after detaining the tanker and its staff for six weeks, and Greece’s decision not to allow the oil tanker to dock its ship indicates that Europe still appears divided on adopting a predictable, clear, unanimous and consistent stance in the ongoing crisis. But the ongoing US Iran standoff can also expand the existing fissures between the US and Europe. This can also be detrimental for US and European cooperation in the Middle East.
The US-Iran standoff, if escalated, can push the Middle East and the neighbouring region in another spell of crisis. It will also unleash forces of proxy and sectarian conflict across the region in the Middle East, such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Strait of Hormuz may become subject to recurring spells of disruption from actions and counter-actions of regional and extra-regional actors. If options ranging from limited to full-blown military action are pushed, it will only strengthen the relevance of the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s ruling party. The US-Iran standoff can also adversely impact the ongoing efforts of the US in Afghanistan. Iran enjoying significant influence in the Dari speaking areas may create roadblocks in the ongoing intra-Afghan peace process.
The writer has been working as Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Pakistan. He works on International Studies with particular focus on US Foreign and Defence Policies