Escalation of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf

Escalation of the Crisis in the Persian GulfAs an oil producing nation, the dominant western nations have done their best to keep Iran under their influence since the last century. The Anglo Persian oil company (founded in 1908) was created much on the same lines as the Saudi Aramco. In the famous Tehran conference (29 November-1 December 1943) the leaders of three big powers (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) met in the Soviet Embassy in the Iranian capital to discuss future strategy for the region after the Second World War was over. As the Cold War set in after the termination of the War, the first nuclear signalling was done to force the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from Iranian territory after the War in 1946. One reason for Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh fell afoul of the US, when he nationalised the Anglo Persian Oil company now owned by the Americans. The young Shah briefly flew into exile in 1952 before Kermit Roosevelt grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, then the station chief of CIA in Tehran was able to engineer a regime change and bring back the Shah. Till the Islamic Revolution in 1979, as far as the Americans were concerned all was well in Iran as the Shah acted as its policeman in the Persian Gulf and oil supplies proceeded unimpeded. After the Ayatollahs came into power the regional dynamics changed dramatically. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was supported and encouraged to wage an eight year long war against the Islamic republic but Iran survived and perhaps emerged stronger and more confident.
It was also then that Iran despite being a signatory of the NPT actively started its covert nuclear program. One way to prevent Iran from producing its own nuclear weapon was to impose harsh economic and political sanctions against it. Its common knowledge that no sanction regime can be fool proof and countries determined to have their way can get what they’re determined to have. Realizing this possibility Obama during his watch concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran to delay its bomb process by at least a dozen years. This Agreement had all the important international stakeholders on board i.e. P5 + 1 i.e. Germany and the EU. The Agreement did not sit well with Israel and Saudi Arabia, so when Trump became the President a renewed effort was mounted to reverse the decision. Trump obliged by walking out of the Agreement, although other countries are still trying to save it. Obviously Israel and the Saudis were happy about it.
Ever since Trump’s decision to opt out of the JCPOA the situation in the Gulf has taken a downturn. Over the past few days, things have only moved up the escalation ladder. The Houthi tribesmen in Yemen have struck oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia with explosive laden unmanned drones, hit the Saudi airport in Abha with missiles. After that came the first attacks on the oil tankers. Americans moved out non-essential persons from its embassy in Baghdad and deployed aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf. Along with a Patriot Air Defence Battery and 1500 troops and four bombers were positioned in the UAE. Iranian revolutionary Guard Corps increased the patrolling of the Strait of Hormuz. There was speculation that these missile boats could swarm and damage or sink petrol tankers to block the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is 21 miles or 33kms. Through this important international chokepoint flows nearly 20 per cent of the world’s oil which is nearly 18 million barrels per day. As the tensions spited the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe visited Tehran to defuse the situation. Coinciding with his visit were reports that four oil tankers have been hit mines ostensibly laid by the Iranians. These tankers included those from Norway, Japan and UAE. Trump immediately blamed the Iranians. This was followed by another incident that brought the region near the cusp of war. A QR 4 Global Hawk drone worth US $123 million had been brought down by the Iranian missiles. Iranians claimed that the surveillance drone was flying over its territorial airspace in the Gulf of Oman. Trump said it was outside the Iranian waters. Then he made the surprising claim that he had ordered a retaliatory strike against Iranian radar and air defense batteries and while the US weapons were cocked and territory to go before he called off the strike 10 minutes before because the response would have not been proportionate. His generals had told him that 150 people (perhaps non-combatants) would have died and this made him stop his counter attack. Fresh reports indicate that Trump has ordered cyber-attacks against the Iranian military targets. Some years ago a US-Israeli virus Stuxnet was injected into the Siemens systems controlling the revolutions of the Iranian centrifuges that had retarded the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.
Incidentally India has also sent two warships in the Gulf to protect its shipping interests in the Gulf. These ships may as well have gone in support of the US military forces already poised for an offensive. Could the presence of the Indian ships mean a multinational attack on the Iranians? It’s quite possible because the US always initiate an invasion through the safe confines of an alliance system. India is already a strategic partner of the US to contain China and it has been noticed by the observers that Indian Prime Minister did not warm up to the Chinese and Russian leadership during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) during the recent summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
There are a mixed signals emanating from Washington DC. Trump says he can ‘obliterate’ Iran but he would rather not go to war. There is local opposition to new wars. The Iranians on the other hand are very clear they will respond to any act that may consider as an act of war. What are the options before Trump: A. He can go to war. B. He can continue to mount military, economic and diplomatic pressure against Iran until they agree to discontinue their nuclear program and stop supporting their proxies in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen among other places. C. Find a face saving exit out of the current imbroglio. Israel and Saudi Arabia would want him to go for the kill even if it means war. Most countries in the world would like a de-escalation of tensions in the region and resumption of normal maritime activities in the Persian Gulf. Iranians will resist any military adventure and would retaliate by means such as disrupting maritime activity in the Gulf and mounting attacks against American assets and interests in the region and elsewhere. A war will be catastrophic. The spill over effect for Pakistan will not be good. There may be an influx of refugees. There will be sympathies for Iran within Pakistan and there can be violent demonstrations in the country. Those drawn to Iranian cause may join their ranks to fight on their side, if it comes to that. Iranians have already found willing recruits among Pakistani young people for its military actions within Syria. This will not bode well for either Pak Saudi relations or Pak US relations. In any case it is not good for Pakistan to take sides with any party and it is in its interests to prevent a regional war. Another war on its doorsteps will be nothing but bad news.
As the world watches with bated breath, let’s see what will be the next step up the escalation ladder. Would the act of brinkmanship continue and the one blinking first loses the first round. Whichever way this crisis is choreographed, it will take some time before the situation returns to normal.


Professor Tughral Yamin is a Professor and Dean at Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS), National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published at:

Escalation of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf

About Tughral Yamin 1 Article
Professor Tughral Yamin is a Professor and Dean at Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS), National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, Pakistan.

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