The Arabian Gulf Must Not Sleepwalk toward War

It does not appear that the final chapter is close to being written on tensions and regional relations in the Arabian Gulf or on the troubled American-Iranian relationship. In fact, in examining the contradictory statements from different actors and events and developments of the last few months, it is hard to ascertain what the final message would be on peace and stability in the region. Adding to the generalized unpredictability and instability is what appears to be a vacillating American position on how to address what the Trump Administration calls Iran’s malign activities without getting into an unwarranted series of actions that could easily lead to another American military engagement in the Gulf.

As things stand today for states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Iraq, Iran, as well as the wider region, the peace of mind that would come from avoiding military action in the Gulf is distant; yet, the resort to using force appears to be just as remote. So far, peace gestures and attempts at mediation over the last few months have yielded no specific—and not even a potential—accommodation. This volatile situation has put the region on edge and increased anxiety about intra-Gulf peace, safety of navigation in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, and stability in the wider region.

The On-Again, Off-Again Tensions

To be sure, some developments over the last few months have not been conducive to a peaceful mindset despite many positive signals from numerous quarters in the Gulf and beyond. After declaring in May that the United States is not looking for regime change in Tehran, President Donald Trump authorized sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Channels of communication between Washington and Tehran do not appear to be producing a compromise that spares the Gulf a military confrontation as Iranian and American forces score hits against their respective unmanned aerial vehicles. Iran and the United Kingdom have also traded seizures of oil tankers in the Gulf and the Strait of Gibraltar. In response, former British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt declared his country’s intention to establish a maritime protection force for the Gulf, prompting a quick Iranian rejection of the idea. On August 5, Iran seized an Iraqi tanker, alleging it was carrying smuggled oil to be transferred to “Gulf Arab states.”

The peace of mind that would come from avoiding military action in the Gulf is distant; yet, the resort to using force appears to be just as remote.

As if not wanting to be left out of the list of peace disrupters in the Gulf, Yemen’s Houthis––whom Saudi Arabia considers to be Iranian proxies-on-demand––attacked a military target in the eastern Saudi city of Dammam with a ballistic missile and in southern Yemen against UAE-trained and allied Security Belt troops. On August 5, the Houthis launched drone attacks on a military base and two civilian airports across the Yemeni-Saudi border—and those were in addition to many similar ones over the last three months. The list of disrupters also included Israel––which has no qualms about exploiting the seeming free-for-all––whose air force carried out attacks on Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq, just as that country’s government is trying to distance itself from the series of dangerous events in the region.

These actions and provocations have been punctuated by announcements indicating a desire to avoid confrontation and to reach acceptable accommodations. For instance, US President Donald Trump rejected advice from the administration’s Iran hawks, like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and halted an attack on the Islamic Republic following Iran’s downing of an American spy plane on June 20. Both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have said that Iran is ready for dialogue, although they emphasized the importance of fairness and lifting sanctions. For their part, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, foremost challengers of Iran in the Gulf, have declared that they are not interested in war and indeed seek de-escalation. All these gestures and others from European and Asian capitals point to both a desire for and a willingness to explore ways that help distance the Gulf from the dark clouds of conflict.

All actors in the area are hedging their bets lest they be caught unawares of a hurtful unknown that could upset their interests or completely subvert them.

Nevertheless, all actors in the area are hedging their bets lest they be caught unawares of a hurtful unknown that could upset their interests or completely subvert them. After announcing a partial withdrawal from Yemen––ostensibly to help address tensions with Iran––the United Arab Emirates dispatched the commander of its naval forces to Tehran to discuss maritime issues with his Iranian counterpart. Whatever the significance of this visit or its reasons, it indicates that Abu Dhabi may have become eager to speak to the Iranians to hedge against future uncertainty. Unfortunately, however, Saudi Arabia may be doing the wrong kind of hedging by banking on Israel’s good relationship with the hawks of the Trump Administration to get the latter to stay the militaristic course with Iran.

Saudi Arabia may also be counting on the US administration’s sensitivity to challenges to the kingdom’s security. Recently, the United States dispatched 500 soldiers to Prince Sultan Air Base south of the capital, Riyadh––where US aircraft are already deployed––as “an additional deterrent” to threats. Washington is also urging allies to join a coalition to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and Yemen, apparently without much success. The British Navy has also sent a second warship to the Gulf to help secure commercial shipping against Iranian small boats, a step that may be too little to challenge them. Iran itself conducted a medium-range missile test on July 24, in the process sending an unequivocal message that it is ready to meet the challenge of many pressures and would not be intimidated into submission.

The mixed messages and signals and still-shaky attempts at hedging over the last few months give many warnings about the future since polarization could inadvertently lead to grim consequences.

The mixed messages and signals and still-shaky attempts at hedging over the last few months give many warnings about the future since polarization could inadvertently lead to grim consequences. These include all-out military action that will result in unprecedented destruction across the expanse of the Middle East, environmental and economic devastation, possible restructuring of the regional state system, and a halt to hydrocarbon exports to the international economy, among others. To be sure, no one should be under any false impression that a war in the Gulf is a “winnable” endeavor, whatever the array of forces and tools each side wields and can command. Instead, all should work for an accommodation that spares everyone the calamities of confrontation.

Contours of an Accommodation

Many states have attempted to head off the possibilities of conflict in the Gulf region, including Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Japan, Germany, and France. Apparently, even President Trump offered to meet with Iran’s Zarif in the White House last July; the latter declined and was later sanctioned. Thus far, efforts have fallen short, mainly because of the gaping hole between expectations of local parties—Iran and some in the GCC––and pressures from regional and international actors, such as Israel and the United States. But a peaceful resolution is possible despite the disparities of opinions and interests, and those endeavoring to devise it would do well to mind the following conditions.

First, Saudi Arabia and the UAE must disabuse themselves of the notion that the Trump Administration may be counted on to do their bidding vis-à-vis Iran. President Trump’s announcement that his administration is no longer seeking regime change in Tehran, and the fact that he refrained from ordering a military strike against Iran last June, are clear indications that he is not interested in another military engagement in the Middle East. They would do well to understand that he is most interested in selling them weapons systems without committing himself to their strategic and long-term hope of containing Iran with American military assets.

Second, Iran does not appear to understand that its ideology and its aggressive agenda in the Gulf and the wider region are arguably the most serious elements heightening its tensions with its Arab adversaries on the other side of the water. No Gulf monarchy has been immune to Iran’s ideological stridency since 1979. Iran’s support to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and sponsorship and assistance to proxy militias in Iraq and Lebanon have betrayed an ambitious agenda that challenges the Gulf and adds to instability in the entire Middle East region. Iran could also help in sending a message to Yemen’s Houthis to refrain from threatening Saudi cities and installations.

Third, these first two elements of the accommodation should be accompanied by a willingness to engage in detailed discussions of a region-wide pact of nonaggression and cooperation between Iran and the states on the other side of the Gulf, in addition to Iraq and Yemen. Such discussions should be based on an understanding that it is not possible for either side of the Gulf to be triumphant while the other feels threatened and insecure. They could be conducted under the auspices of the United Nations as a neutral party.

The United States would do well to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran should rescind its latest decision to go beyond the 3.67 percent enrichment level agreed to in the JCPOA.

Fourth, and finally, the United States would do well to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which it should have never withdrawn. Simultaneously, the Islamic Republic of Iran should rescind its latest decision to go beyond the 3.67 percent enrichment level agreed to in the JCPOA and should not violate other provisions of the agreement. Iran’s nuclear program remains one of the most important issues in bilateral and multilateral relations; going back to the original JCPOA is arguably the safest and most logical step Washington and Tehran could take to help de-escalate tensions.

Confusion and uncertainty only help to increase tension and the possibility of a military confrontation in the Gulf. Much is at stake and regional and international actors had better be wise to the unwarranted nature of conditions in the region. Otherwise, they will find themselves sleepwalking toward a disastrous and devastating war.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here