Iran is betting on US indecisiveness in showdown with Washington
Developments in the Arabian Gulf have shaken the security of the region and raised concerns about energy supplies, global peace and the possible disruption of maritime shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
However, the initial signs of war do not necessarily announce the approach of its onset. We are witnessing a war of a different kind involving an economic blockade and codified and escalating reactions according to the agenda of Iran.
Tehran's stakes lie in its bet on the absence of a US decision to wage war or direct military action against Iran. The ball is on US President Donald Trump's and his administration’s side of the field, testing their credibility in this affair in particular and in the whole region in general, especially in light of their poor record on foreign affairs issues.
As the escalation between Iran and the United States continues, the situation in the Gulf region deteriorates. A security breach in the area June 13 involved attacks on two giant oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and near the Strait of Hormuz. Those attacks came one day after a missile was fired at Abha International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia and one month after the sabotage of four commercial ships off the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and the targeting of Saudi oil facilities.
It is clear that the United States' failing to pin the responsibility for the Fujairah attack on Tehran and its lack of response to the threat to the interests of Washington's allies, as had been promised, may have encouraged the decision makers in Tehran to go beyond the verbal messages sent in May and move to taking specific acts of war, such as hitting a civilian Saudi airport with a long-range ballistic missile launched by Tehran’s arm in Yemen or targeting the world’s oil and energy supplies in a vital maritime corridor that sees the transit of 20 million barrels of oil daily and which is difficult to replace in any other region of the world.
The impudence of the perpetrators of the attacks went as far as targeting shipments to Japan while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran with an American message to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was a deliberate act of defiance to the United States and to all those who were or still are involved in mediation efforts, whether Europeans, Arabs or others.
The Iranian regime could not care less about diplomatic signals because it regards them as a cover for Washington’s “economic war” on Iran and because Khamenei and his inner circle no longer believe in Washington’s negotiations approach.
It is plausible that the targeting of petrochemical shipments in the Persian Gulf is linked to Trump's decision to expand US sanctions on Iran to the petrochemicals sector, after strangling the oil, gas and minerals sectors.
The petrochemicals sector is a huge part of the Iranian economy, second only to oil. It is said that petrochemicals are an important source of funding for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The situation in Iran's oil sector appears to be worsening, with Washington imposing sanctions on any insurance company that insures shipments of Iranian oil.
What is going on between the United States and Iran is not exactly a war in the classical sense of the term. It is a confrontation on different fronts and in different forms where the aim is to score points and test the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
In response to the near economic collapse in Iran, with the Iranian rial plummeting and inflation soaring to 40%, targeting oil shipments in the Gulf of Oman is merely giving form to the warning, reiterated by Iranian President Hassan Rohani and senior military commanders, that Iran would not allow the transfer of oil from the Gulf if the US sanctions are going to prevent it from exporting its own oil.
On the US side, the escalation of sanctions has yet to be accompanied by Washington's implementation of its promise to respond to anything that harms its interests or those of its allies.
In this context, it seems that the US president was waiting for the failure of the mediation mission of the Japanese prime minister to conclude that Iran is refusing to return to negotiations, as it had rejected similar European requests for more than a year. Trump’s bet on a strategy of maximum pressure to bring Iran to heel has become obsolete, just like the optimism of eager peace brokers Germany and Japan failed to turn things around.
It does not look like diplomatic openness is going to soften Iran's positions. The Europeans and Japan failed because Tehran is hoping to compel the Trump administration to accept a return to the agreement signed by the administration of former US President Barack Obama. Tehran's intransigence lies in its desire to continue bargaining with Washington and at the same time scoring points against it, as it had done before the 2015 agreement.
If that is the case, it would be better for all those concerned about stability and energy security, as they say, such as China, Russia, Europe and Japan, to remove the Iranian file from the bilateral tug of war with Washington and move it to the UN Security Council.
Without Tehran’s acceptance to abandon the logic of the revolution and its acceptance of the logic of a state respecting the rules of international law on the safety of air and sea navigation and the non-deployment and transfer of ballistic missiles, there will be no sense to any mediation.
In the face of American reluctance to deal decisively with it, as it has been happening for four decades, Iran will continue its path of defiance and betting on the time factor to twist Washington's arm.
In this, Tehran's rulers rely on what they think is their excellent knowledge of behind-the-scenes political life in the United States and how decision-making in Washington can falter. Tehran is also betting on China’s covert support, Russia’s indifference and Europe’s lack of spine.
All these factors encourage Iran to play on the edge of the precipice and to play on the ropes of international confusion, without the least concern for energy security or for the region’s security or for good neighbourly relations.
As usual, behind Iran’s behaviour, there lurks its permanent bet on the success of its imperial project at the expense of Arabs and their countries.