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Evolving anxiety over Iran

  • Published at 12:03 am August 18th, 2019
Rouhani said it was the US that started the fire and Washington has to 'put it out' by returning to the nuclear deal | AFP

Iran, if attacked, could easily launch in response to a hybrid war

The crisis in relations between the US and Iran has evolved in a manner that is creating concern not only within the Middle East but also in member countries of the EU, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, and other countries of Central Asia. 

Anxiety has led to the price of oil edging beyond $63 per barrel. At this point, Iran’s economy is suffering seriously from the re-imposition of US sanctions that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear accord with world powers. Efforts are apparently being undertaken now by the EU and Britain to bring about a reasonable resolution to the evolving crisis despite tensions created through the capture of an Iranian oil tanker and Stena Impero tanker by the British authorities.

The latest step has been taken through a JCPOA meeting on July 28.

They are consequently correctly urging all those associated with the heightening of the crisis “to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions.”

This approach seems to have been overlooked with the latest US decision to impose US sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif. 

It is understood that an effort is underway where Britain and its European partners -- France and Germany -- will encourage Iran to stick to its pledges contained in the nuclear deal that involved Iran limiting nuclear activities in return for the easing of economic sanctions.

The world will carefully monitor how the new British PM Boris Johnson will attempt to resolve the crisis. Iran had signed up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 where they agreed to limit nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors -- under this agreement Iran was permitted a 3.67% uranium enrichment cap and a stockpile of 300kg.

In return, the other signatories -- USA, UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia -- agreed to lift some of the crippling economic sanctions placed on Iran. However, in May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the USA from the agreement.

Iran’s nuclear agency has said that it had enriched uranium to 4.5% purity and was now considering lifting it to 20% in 60 days’ time.

After exercising strategic patience since May 8, 2018, this measure had apparently been undertaken, with the blessings of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in keeping with their anger over the manner in which the US was treating their country.

The Iran situation illustrates them all -- an antipathy to international agreements; over-reliance on regional allies with their own agendas to pursue; rising tensions with long-standing NATO partners; and, above all, inability to determine and prioritize Washington’s real strategic interests.

Some are also interpreting the emerging scenario as the revival of great power competition, where the US is seeking to re-orientate its deployments and to bolster its armed forces to face a rising China and an emboldened Russia. At present Iran clearly does not rate very high in Washington’s strategic priorities as compared to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, and Egypt. This is also partially infuriating Iran.

The US is clearly trying to force Iran back to the table for further negotiations on the existing nuclear deal. Tehran has however rebuffed Trump’s overtures to talk. In the highly charged environment of the social media age, this is inevitably becoming a struggle as much about perceptions as reality.

One aspect is however very clear. US security strategists know that Iran, if attacked, could easily launch in response to a hybrid war -- both directly and through its proxies.

Their aim would be to carry out sporadic and widely dispersed attacks on shipping and other targets in the Persian Gulf. This would send oil prices and insurance premiums up. This, in turn, could also perhaps encourage further punitive responses. This unpalatable prospect risks dangerous escalation. One can only hope that all parties will exercise caution and avoid conflict.

It needs to be understood by the US that despite their considerable military power, air and a maritime war against Iran would have severe implications and could raise all sorts of dangers and instability for neighbouring countries in the Gulf region near the Strait of Hormuz.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]