A festering four-year war, crippling sanctions, threats to maritime oil trade and a US naval battlegroup steaming for the Persian Gulf. Such developments were troubling enough, before two Saudi tankers were reportedly sabotaged off the UAE coast on Sunday – a development set to ratchet tensions between Tehran and Washington to new and combustible highs.
With Riyadh claiming significant hull damage to its ships and the UAE claiming the damage was done inside its territorial waters, what last week was a looming standoff is now a real-time crisis with potent implications for both global energy security and regional stability.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, staring down Iran has been top of the agenda among many to have passed through the revolving door of his inner circle. For the current uber-hawks, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the national security adviser, John Bolton, there has hardly been a higher calling. Both have been pivotal in focusing Trump on Iran, and imposing new comprehensive sanctions on its economy. And both drove the bellicose rhetoric that last week spelled out the same scenario to which the region awoke on Monday.
According to Riyadh, one of the “sabotaged” tankers was en route to a Saudi port to upload oil to be exported to the US. Stopping such a shipment would be consistent with an act of revenge for crippling Iranian exports and for making good on threats to disrupt global energy routes – although on Monday Iran vehemently denied playing a role.
Bolton’s prediction of a “credible threat” from Iran, or its proxies, to the oil interests of Washington, or its allies, however looks prophetic in the royal courts of the Gulf. And what regional officials are calling a “terrorist attack” is certain to similarly energise a White House that has at times appeared to be itching for a confrontation with a foe it now faces in most corners of the Middle East.
Iran has steadily become the sum of all fears in the eyes of the US and its regional allies; its creeping influence across the Arab world, belligerence towards Israel and perceived readiness to act on its threats to a decades old regional order, which – not without irony – was upended by the US invasion of Iraq.
Trump’s backers ignore the Bush administration’s intervention, blaming instead Barack Obama’s pivot towards Iran and his signature nuclear deal for kickstarting Iran’s adventurism. While Obama’s gestures were hardly seen in Tehran as trust-building measures and did nothing to slow a regional consolidation, Iran’s ascendancy started before him and has continued since.
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard arrive for a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in February 2019. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
Tehran’s view has been rather different. It views the US as a capricious actor whose presence and interventions has destabilised the region for decades. In Trump’s America, it sees a player with the same sort of ideological zeal that it is accused of wielding itself. A self appointed global sheriff not worthy of the badge and to whom it can never bow.
The ill-fated reality of 2003 gave Tehran a bridgehead in Iraq and a springboard into Syria that, nearly eight years into the civil war, has brought the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to within striking distance of Israel’s north. Iran’s proxies have also helped weigh down Saudi Arabia in Yemen, lay the foundations for a parallel state in Iraq and energise a still rumbling opposition movement in Shia-majority Bahrain.
The loaded geopolitics have rarely strayed far from oil though. And with Iran’s embattled economy dependent on oil exports and the US once again enthusiastic for Saudi crude, a flashpoint in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 35% of the world’s oil is shipped, has long been likely.
Tensions have been boiling since the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions waivers from eight countries that import Iranian oil. The stated goal of this was to collapse Iran’s exports to “zero”. Exports had already taken a hit when Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal signed by his predecessor last November – partly in the hope of renegotiating a better deal. Ever since, Iran has prevaricated on its own commitment to a multilateral pact, which delivered revenue streams and global legitimacy, albeit briefly. Last week, Iran said it would no longer honour parts of the deal and had no interest in discussing a revised version.
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Several things are abundantly clear though; sanctions, including banking restrictions, are hitting the Iranian economy hard, limiting its capacity to sustain its people, or allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, where fighters have taken substantial pay cuts in recent months. More importantly though, Iran cannot let itself be seen to capitulate to the US moves. To do so would risk far more than its post-2003 gains.
Washington appears to be betting on just such a surrender, and has pushed brinkmanship to its limits. On Monday, it warned US citizens in Iraq and elsewhere in the region to be vigilant. The risks of miscalculation on either side are higher than they’ve been in the past 16 years.