Challenges of a permanent state of war in the Gulf region

The US reaction towards Iranian impudence is not reassuring because Iran continues to provoke and strike at the heart of neighbouring countries with impunity.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Security concerns. A US Marine Corps officer carries his gear across the flight deck of the USS Lewis B. Puller upon embarkation in the Arabian Gulf, May 11. (Reuters)
Security concerns. A US Marine Corps officer carries his gear across the flight deck of the USS Lewis B. Puller upon embarkation in the Arabian Gulf, May 11. (Reuters)

Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Arabian Gulf zone has been living in a continuous state of crises and war and the security of the concerned Arab countries has been subjected to tests of all kinds. There is a growing challenge to those nations considering recent developments, such as the attack on commercial ships off the Port of Fujairah and the bombing of Saudi oil installations.

The US reaction towards Iranian impudence is not reassuring because Iran continues to provoke and strike at the heart of neighbouring countries with impunity, either directly or through its proxies, agents and sleeper terror cells loyal to Tehran.

What is even less reassuring is that competing international players in the oil game and its energy corridor do not consider Arab interests and overlook Iran’s destabilising role to the global economy.

The coming months are going to be a delicate period because until the summer of 2020, when the US presidential campaign is in full swing, Iran will do all it can to gain time, sometimes through extortion and blackmail and other times through feigning to be negotiating with US President Donald Trump either directly or through hidden intermediaries.

Iran’s main goal is to preserve its gains in the region and prevent any implosion. This implies that the Arab and the Gulf countries will be exposed to a strategic threat extending from the other side of the Arabian Gulf to Yemen and the whole of the Middle East.

This is why some highlighted the importance of establishing a regional security organisation in the Arabian Gulf that is not meant to replace the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, established in accordance with the 1973 Helsinki Accords at the height of the Cold War, could be taken as a model for a framework for settling differences and respecting member states’ interests and sovereignty. However, access to this outcome would be severely hampered by the very nature of the regime in Tehran and its decision-making circles, as was manifested by Saudi Arabia’s experiences with it from the era of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Therefore, the mandatory and vital relationship with Washington, despite the vicissitudes of changing administrations and the specificity of the Trump phenomenon, is not sufficient to secure immediate and future guarantees. The situation necessitates diversifying and building stronger relations with the main international players from China to Russia and European and Asian countries to create a safety net because the stakes involved are not the security interests of specific states but the economy and security of the whole world.

Arab countries have been paying a heavy price for the “permanent state of war” that has prevailed in the Arabian Gulf region since what I consider to be the First Gulf War — the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — to the Second Gulf War (1990-91) following the invasion of Kuwait and the Third Gulf War in 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq.

This series of wars was followed by the intensification of Iranian intervention in the Arab world, the Iranian nuclear crisis and the war against terrorism after the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 and the war in Yemen in recent years.

At least since the 1960s, US policy in the Middle East has been based on protecting Israel, securing the flow of hydrocarbon imports and the war on terror.

The strategic assessment by the Obama administration led to the gradual withdrawal of the United States from the region because of the United States’ sufficiency in hydrocarbon needs after the production of shale gas and oil and because the main stage for restructuring of the global system calls for a stronger presence in Asia and the Pacific. In this context, as in the negotiations with Iran on the nuclear file, concerned Arab parties were dropped or neglected.

The decision-maker in Washington, after completing the military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, was forced or chose to redeploy US troops there in the summer of 2014 to fight terrorism. Soon after, the deployment of US troops was expanded to areas of Syria and US military presence was beefed up in many countries.

Looking at the pattern of US wars in the region, we find that Washington does not sustain its dominance and credibility for long. The winners from the collapse of the regional Arab regimes were Israel, Iran and Turkey, while Washington exploited Arab fears and invested in the structural weakness of the Arab system.

Of course, saying this does not remove the responsibilities of the Arabs themselves. Rather, it requires them to rearrange their cards and whatever is left of the elements of their economic, strategic and political strength before it is too late for them. The target is to avoid that the Arab parties become the real losers in times of war and peace and in situations of no war and no peace.

Some Arabs rightly wonder if Trump is fooling them. Others like to advance “conspiracy” or “collusion” theories in which Westerners, Persians and Israelis have ganged up on the Arabs.

Political decisions, however, must be based on facts and an understanding of the balance of world powers and on giving priority to national interests and linking them to effective alliances and on investing in the right place because countries, whether large, medium or small, are not charities and they play for their interests in the first place.

In light of the escalation on the banks of the Gulf, Europe fears the dangers of having a widespread conflict erupt in the area as a result of the policy of brinkmanship or the possibility of the outbreak of an unplanned war because of an error of judgement or Iranian recklessness, both directly or through Iranian proxies, in reaction to Washington’s attempts to economically strangulate Iran.

European fears are compounded by Trump’s provocative style in escalating crises or in negotiations.

Europe, the losing international pole in the tripartite domino game by the United States, China and Russia,  has found itself caught between the American hammer and the Iranian anvil since the unilateral US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. It failed to stop Iran from beginning to pull out of the nuclear deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that he is not prepared to play the role of the fire brigade in the United States-Iran rivalry effectively announced Russia’s neutrality.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s tour of Japan, India and China shows Tehran’s desperate efforts to loosen its economic strangulation. The Iranian supreme leader recently declared that Iran will not go to war but Tehran refuses to negotiate. The result is the dilemma of permanent anxiety and a state of war without war.

In the meantime, Arab energies will continue to be drained by wars with agents of Iran, such that any real confrontation in the Iran-US rivalry is going to be on Arab land and at the expense of Arab citizens and their countries.

When the Arabs enacted a partial oil embargo following the 1973 war, Washington placed the region on its list of priorities, leading to the US invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

The linking thread was the Arab-Israeli conflict, hence the series of the peace agreements of Camp David, the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords.

This time, the formal confrontation with Iran or at least the appearance of limiting its influence in the region is being linked with the Trump team’s vision of a final solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is a sensitive turning point, because European opposition is virtually ineffective, while there are US-Russian-Chinese contacts to develop consensus on the subject and on the distribution of interests and spheres of influence.

At this crucial turn, the escalation in the Arabian Gulf puts the region on a hot plate and increases dangers to its security. It is useful to remember that the end of the Cold War coincided with the Second Gulf War and the assertion of American unilateralism.

Could the current escalation lead to the formation of a troika of the stronger international players without the need for war? All that is needed are sporadic confrontations now and then to ease the tension and facilitate the demarcation of borders and deals.

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