Iran-US standoff in Persian Gulf

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Persian Gulf

Asif Haroon Raja l

Till the Islamic revolution in Iran in March 1979, Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi was a strategic partner of USA and was lionized as the policeman of the Persian Gulf.

Friendship turned into deep-seated animosity once Imam Khomeini took over power. There was no letup in their animosity till Hassan Rouhani was elected President in June 2013. Thereon, there was a thaw in their relations and it led to the landmark nuclear deal in July 2015 in return for lifting of US-EU sanctions on January 16, 2016. Their relations dipped one again after Trump assumed power in January 2017 and he started pressing Iran at the behest of Israel to roll back its missile program or else be prepared for the cancellation of nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions.

Sanctions re-imposed in 2018

When Iran refused to relent, Trump administration cancelled the multilateral nuclear deal on May 8, 2018 and imposed first set of sanctions on August 7, 2018. On November 5, sanctions on oil and banking sector were applied. On April 8, 2019, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was declared a rogue outfit.

After announcing new measures against Iran’s steel and mining sectors, on June 7, the U.S. imposed sanctions on all trade with Iran’s biggest petrochemical producer, which were bound to hurt Iran seriously.

Waiver given to eight countries to import oil and gas from Iran was also withdrawn.

Coercive tactics by USA

Defiance by Iran impelled reckless Trump to move forward a naval armada to the Mediterranean which included two aircraft carriers, and also deployed B-52 bombers near the Persian Gulf on May 5. 1500 ground troops and armored vehicles were moved forward by CENTCOM from Armenia. On June 17, additional 1000 US troops were moved to Middle Eastern theatre.

Diplomatic isolation, followed by economic coercion and now military posturing coupled with threats hurled by the US hawks and defiant stance of Iran together with Iran-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) tiff, made the situation in the Persian Gulf ominous.

Attacks on commercial oil tankers

On May 12, four ships anchored near the United Arab Emirate (UAE) port Fujairah were damaged by explosives attached to their hulls. It is the only UAE terminal bypassing Strait of Hormuz. While UAE avoided blaming Iran, the US NSA John Bolton impulsively blamed Iran.

The May attack was accompanied by two drone strikes on May 14 launched by Houthi forces in Yemen on the Saudi east-west pipeline that allows some Saudi exports to avoid a passage through the Strait of Hormuz. A third strike was a medium range missile launched by the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza strip against the city of Ashkelon in Israel. On May 19, a rocket landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The strikes conveyed an impression that those countries who instigate for a U.S. war on Iran would get seriously hurt should Iran be attacked.

Early morning on June 13, two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman by surface weapons. The Norwegian crude oil tanker came from the UAE and was on its way to Taiwan. Its 75,000 tons of load caught fire and the crew had to abandon the ship. The second attacked tanker of Japan, Kokuka Courageous, was coming from KSA and on its way to Singapore.

The tankers hit were loaded with naphta from the UAE and methanol from KSA. Both are petrochemical products and not simply crude oil.

The Iranian Search and Rescue ship rescued the 44 crew members of both ships. Oil prices soared by some 4%.

Mike Pompeo upped the ante by promptly blaming Iran and to make his accusation credible, a fake video clip was made viral on social media in which the rescuers were shown as fixing mines to the tankers.

Motive behind attacks on oil tankers?

That Iran might have the motive to give a loud message that any aggressive act would be at the cost of disruption of global oil trade does not mean or prove that it is responsible for May 12 or June 13 attacks. Risking to sink two foreign tankers in international water is not what an otherwise cautious Iran would typically do. Someone else might have initiated it to blame Iran.

Iran seems to have nothing to win from these attacks. If not Iran, then who could be trying to torpedo the current mediation attempts and flare up tensions? USA, Israel, KSA, or UAE?

Probably a CIA-Mossad joint venture in their bid to provoke the two Gulf States to lock horns with Iran. In this regard, the US might be eyeing at the 41-country Islamic Alliance which has already been dubbed by Iran as Iran-specific.

There were news that it is seen as an alternative of NATO more suited to fight wars in targeted Muslim countries. That is why Trump had taken part in the Summit in Riyadh in July 2017 and approved the Alliance and at the same time lashed at Iran. Possibility of making the Islamic Alliance war worthy instead of a counter-terrorism force and pitching it against Iran cannot be ruled out.

Or else, make the two oil rich Arab States more dependent upon US protection and force them to buy arms, provide bases and fund the war.

Worried about Iran’s strategic encirclement and penchant for use of proxies, Crown Prince Salman and UAE Crown Prince are being constantly provoked by Trump to take on Iran headlong assuring them of full back up support. Attacks on oil tankers could be manipulated with this aim in view.

Drone incident further flared up tensions

Shooting down of US spy drone Global Hawk by IRGC near Hormuz on the morning of June 20 further escalated tensions between the two foes. Drone must have been sent to photograph Iran’s latest deployments and war preparations in the Hormuz.

It speaks volumes about the tenacity of Iran to fight back and technical capacity to hit a highly sophisticated drone. Pakistan had shown lack of courage against drone war.

Trump in a huff ordered retaliatory strikes the same evening but by next morning had come down on earth.

Comparative relative strength. In terms of relative strength, USA far outmatches Iran. The US has the wherewithal to launch air war and naval war and cause substantial destruction to Iran, which has been largely isolated and heavily sanctioned. CENTCOM by itself commands sufficient resources to do the needful. US Strategic Command can provide cyber, space, electronic, intelligence cover, while African Command can beef up resources of CENTCOM. Of all the military assets, aircraft carriers will make the difference.

USA’s vulnerabilities

USA has not won a single war after the 2nd World War despite always having chosen weaker nations for attack. After 9/11, it has systematically degraded its so-called invincibility, economic strength, prestige and clout and is today a tired and frustrated horse, stretched all over the globe. It is badly stuck in the quagmire of Afghanistan from where it is inclined to pullout forces due to resistance put up by Taliban. Syria is another failed front from where Trump plans to abandon. Boots on ground strategy has been forsaken.

Ukraine and South China have become flashpoints. China is fast outpacing USA in geo-economics and China aligned with resurgent Russia pose a major threat to the US global ambition to dominate the world. After successive debacles, NATO has no heart left to jump into another cauldron. Diplomatically, USA is getting isolated due to Trump’s reckless policies, alliance with Israel and India, and unfair international order run by Washington.

USA’s choices

Direct war, proxy war, diplomacy, gunboat diplomacy, blockade, more sanctions, precision air/missile strikes on Iran’s nuclear/missile sites by US-Israel, and regime change.

Letting Israel to be in the forefront duly backed by USA, NATO and Arab States, sufficiently weaken Iran and force a regime change.

Longing aspiration is to cause maximum attrition to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and its defence structure, decapitate IRGC, neutralize ports, and capture strategic islands.

Possibility of ground invasion

Traditionally, USA’s strategy has been to first demonize its prey, encircle it and then launch the air offensive followed by ground offensive. It has preferred hired proxies or the army of a neighboring country to undertake the land invasion, but in case of Iran it has so far not been able to muster the ground support from elsewhere, or hire proxies from within Iran. Terrain in northern Iran is mountainous and in the south is boggy. Without ground invasion, tangible results cannot be achieved.

From among the neighbors of Iran, none will agree to let USA use its soil to invade Iran. However, let has have a look at the features of each neighbor.

Iraq was a sure bet but the scenario has changed. Muqtada al-Sadr is a strong Shia cleric in Iraq enjoying political and military strength like that of Hezbollah under Nasrullh in Lebanon. The other powerful Shia group is Fatah Alliance comprising Badr Force under cleric Hadi al-Ameri. Both are aligned with Iran and detest Zionist-America axis. The government in Baghdad is also under the influence of Iran which has recently passed a resolution in the parliament that Iraqi soil will not be allowed to be used against Iran by USA. The Iraqi government is pressing USA hard to withdraw its troops from Iraq. It is also seeking war reparations for the destruction caused by US-NATO forces in the last 16 years under a fabricated story. Gas deal has further strengthened Iran-Iraq relations. Iraq is now trying to procure S-400 air-defence system from Russia.

Azerbaijan is under the influence of USA and is being enticed to join NATO, but it is also economically aligned with Russia. Like Turkmenistan, it is oil producing country and both export oil to Russia and hence cannot afford to annoy Russia.

Turkey has signed an agreement with Russia for purchase of S-400 anti-missile/aircraft system and is not ready to cancel it despite America’s threat of stopping the delivery of US F-35 jets to Ankara. Turkey is now actively considering to buy Su-57 and some S-500s from Russia. Su-400 deployed in Turkey will deter USA from using Mediterranean as an offensive platform. Turkey had refused use of its soil and airspace for attack on Iraq in 2003, and will do so again since Erdogan is in much stronger position and is wary of USA after the last coup attempt which was inspired by CIA.

KSA/UAE

Bitterness of the two oil-rich Gulf States as well as of Bahrain and Kuwait brewed up after Iran took administrative control of three islands in the Persian Gulf called ‘Abu Musa’ ‘Greater and Lesser Tumbs’ in November 1971. UAE had laid claims over these islands since these had been handed over to Sharjah Sheikhdom by the outgoing British in 1960s. Bitterness turned into hostility once Imam Khomeini took over in 1979 and started expanding Shia’ism in the region while KSA espoused the cause of Wahhabism. Since then, both are engaged in ideological and oil rivalry.

KSA and other Gulf States have traditionally remained aligned with USA due to their weak military strength and the latter has been exploiting their rivalry against Iran. In the name of providing security umbrella, the US sells arms and has also established military bases in most Gulf States. With Crown Prince Salman holding all the levers of powers in KSA and believing in aggressive

foreign policy, he has come in good books of Trump. Latter is saving Salman from Khashogi’s murder charge.

KSA is already involved in expensive air war in Yemen from which it wants to extricate and is threatened by Houthis, ISIS and Shias in eastern province.

Riyadh hosted three high-level summits from May 31 to June 1 to rally political support. Besides USA, KSA leans upon Pakistan and Egypt for security.

Owing to their vulnerabilities, both would like USA to take on Iran and they at best would agree to provide funds and bases for the venture.

Black Sea could be another avenue of invasion for USA against Iran, but is surrounded by Russian-influenced States.

Afghanistan is ruled out because of the Taliban gaining an upper edge and making life difficult for occupying forces. Taliban have now moved closer to Russia, China and Iran. Terrain factor is another constraint for ground operations.

Pakistan-US relations are no more cordial and have almost entered the realm of hostility. Pakistan has had enough fighting someone else’s war and that too at the cost of getting punished rather than rewarded. It has had enough of US duplicity and policy of betrayal. With turbulent eastern and western borders, Pakistan can ill-afford to open another front by allowing US forces to use Baluchistan as a base of operation against Iran. It had refused to oblige USA to allow CIA to use Baluchistan for covert operations against Ahmadinejad regime when Pak-US relations were supposedly very friendly during Musharraf’s era. The US will think twice to use this approach due to terrain friction. Hence this option is unlikely.

Bashar al-Assad will not allow US air to use Syrian soil since he is the closest ally of Iran and is dependent upon Russia for security which has installed S-400 and deployed its air force.

Russia-China. Both have traditionally supported Iran during its testing times. Iran exports 22% of its oil to China. Russia has helped Iran in developing its nuclear program. They would not sit idle and let USA destroy Iran after having learnt a bitter lesson in Libya. Disruption of CPEC is another vital factor which will drag China into the evolving crisis. This will be among the biggest restraining factor since their entry will lead to 3rd world war.

India

In anticipation to the oil crisis, India has deployed warships and jets to secure its oil interests in the Gulf region. It is also feverishly building up its strategic crude oil reserves at Mangalore with the help of UAE which is committed to provide 5.86 million barrels of oil. Saudi Aramco has pledged to invest $44 billion for the installation of huge oil refinery and petrochemical complex at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra enabling India to export oil to the oil needy countries in Asia.

True to its wicked nature, India is trying to gain maximum benefits from both sides in the current standoff. Best option for India is to take Iran and the Gulf States in Indo-US loop to completely encircle Pakistan. However, possibility of India playing the role of Trojan horse in Chahbahar, if chips are down for Iran, cannot be ruled out. In the wake of closure of airspace by Iran, India will now take that much time to reach Kabul by air as it takes to reach USA.

Oman

By virtue of its strategic location, Oman is the only country about which both Iran and Pakistan will have to remain vigilant since it has provided military bases to USA, UK, Israel and India at Salalah and Duqm. India used the good offices of Sultan Qaboos to develop ties with Iran.

UK-USA militaries are operating in Duqm since 2013-14, while Salalah is in use of British Navy and air force and that of India since very long. Sultan Qaboos is expected to recognize Israel soon and allow it to open an embassy at Muscat. Duqm at the mouth of Gulf of Oman is ideally located to oversee Hormuz, Pakistan’s seacoast and the CPEC in particular.

EU. The EU dependent upon oil and gas of Iran is critical of USA for having cancelled the nuclear deal and its aggressive posturing against Iran and removal of waivers to 8 countries to import oil from Iran and do not favor war.

Iran’s strengths

USA’s aggressive moves have not overawed Iran and it stays firm and fully determined to repel aggression with full force. It has threatened to attack American targets in the region and to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery for oil shipments from the Middle East. The warnings came in response to the US, which is trying to cut off Iranian crude exports. Iranian leadership is now working on the strategy, “If Iran cannot export oil through the Persian Gulf, no-one will do this.” “Either everyone will export, or no-one.”

With its missiles well-camouflaged and secured in deep tunnels, Iran retains the second strike capability against Israel. Iran also has the capacity to strike US targets in the Middle East and armed speed-boats are another means to choke or to battle intruders in Hormuz.

Iran has started to build stockpile of nuclear fuel and increase production of heavy water to re-energize the nuclear program.

Besides well trained, motivated and resilient armed forces, IRGC is a force to reckon with and will make the difference. IRGC has its own army, navy, air defence, cyber and aerospace. It guards nuclear program, commands missile force, Al-Quds, 11 million Militias, 10,000 Hezbollah force and 110,000 Houthis and has been taking active part in the wars in Iraq and Syria. That is why it was declared a terrorist group by USA.

Today, Iran is militarily much stronger than what it was during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s when the relative strength was 1:7 in favor of Iraq. And it yet it managed to bring the war to a stalemate.

It can target Israel’s Iron-Dome Air Defence System with 200,000 missiles and free flight rockets from three directions, Iran, Lebanon and Gaza.

Houthis can block Bab el Mandab and target oil-rich Gulf States particularly KSA with missiles and drones.

Iran can bank upon support of Russia and China.

Iran’s Vulnerabilities. Its medium size economy is being degraded through tough sanctions and now military escalation. Its southeastern coast is most vulnerable and so are its inhabited and some un-inhabited islands. Economy will play a crucial role particularly when inflation has shot up to 50%. While Iran is quite used to sanctions and isolation and has always skirted around these challenges, what will matter is the role of international business community and financial institutions including its own banking system which will impinge Iran’s economy the most. Trump’s desire to cause unbearable pain to Iran could be achieved through this route and not through sanctions or war.

Will USA attack Iran?

The US refrained from attacking Iran when it’s most favorite blue eyed boy Reza Shah was being deposed by the Islamists and was forced to flee in January 1979. Seizure of US Embassy in Tehran by students and keeping them hostage for 444 days was a bigger insult to US prestige than 9/11. Yet, the

US didn’t avenge its humiliation when Iran was most vulnerable and devoid of nuclear/missile power. Except for instigating Iraq to invade Iran in 1980 and applying sanctions, the US quietly watched the Islamic revolution gain roots. War on terror has considerably sapped USA’s economy and bargaining power.

USA’s plate is full with sticky problems and is stuck in the quagmires of Afghanistan and Syria and is engaged in futile battle for domination of South China Sea and also in a losing trade war with China. Russo-China combine can flatten the American trajectory of influence over world affairs. American and NATO troops have no heart to land themselves in another trouble spot. Maximizing pressure instead of direct war with Iran fetches more politico-economic benefits to USA.

Trump’s hypocrisy

After flexing his muscles, President Trump is now trying to move Iran towards negotiations. On May 27 he stated that he is not seeking a regime change in Iran. On another occasion he said he had no appetite for war. He is making use of the good offices of Switzerland, Germany, Japan, UK, and France to defuse the volatile situation. While throwing feelers of peace, in the same breath hypocrite Trump is vowing to impose fresh sanctions on Iran.

Pros and cons

Distance and time (time and space manipulation) multiply difficulties for USA. Fighting on home turf is an enormous advantage while fighting far away from homeland with seven seas in between in incredibly ominous, expensive and risky. Time is definitely not on the side of the invader. Given the preponderance of military and technological strength which the US commands, it is easy to overwhelm a country but exceedingly difficult to subdue and digest it.

Iran is three times larger in size and far more populous and unified than Iraq. Unlike the barren terrain of Iraq, mountainous terrain in Iran adds to the advantage of a defender. It is far more ideologically motivated and does not suffer from the ethnic divides. The outsiders were successful in poisoning the minds of the Iraqis and Syrians against their armies of the two countries. In Iran, the ethnic and sectarian situation is under control. Unlike in 2013, IRCG, clergy and reformists are on one page, and there is no visible discord in civil-military relations.

Unlike the targeted Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, which were devoid of ballistic missiles or effective air defence, and had insurgents like Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Iraqi Shias and Kurds in Iraq, imported Libyan rebels,

and rebellious faction in Syrian Army together with instigated Sunnis, Iran is more homogenous, has strong and battle hardened armed forces including fully motivated Pasdaran-e-Inqilab, underground ballistic missiles, large numbers of gun boats and ideologically motivated resilient people.

Iran has extended its Shia arc far and wide in the Middle East which provides substantial perimeter of security to the country. It draws strength from its nexus with Iraq-Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza. The nexus poses a serious threat to both KSA and Israel. Iran has supplied surface to air missiles, surface to surface rockets, drones and other war munitions to the Houthis who often strike targets in KSA. Well-equipped Hezbollah and Hamas threaten both flanks of Israel. Former poses major threat to Israel. Iran can now stir up Taliban against US military in Afghanistan with whom it has developed a deeper understanding. More so, Iran sits over the strategic Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of the world oil flows and has the requisite will and capability to block it. If closed, it will surge up oil prices and impact the economies of the whole world.

The world in general and the Muslim world in particular has come to know the dangerous agenda of USA against the Muslim countries which it wants to achieve with the help of Israel and India. They know that USA has the military capacity to bludgeon a country with its brute airpower and missiles, but doesn’t have the skill and ability to rebuild the destroyed nation. They have also not forgotten that each and every invasion was undertaken under a false narrative and similar fakery is now in play against Iran.

Impact of war in Persian Gulf

War against Iran would jump up oil prices, disrupt CPEC in particular and BRI in general. This in turn would affect the geo-economics of China, SCO States and Russia. China and Russia would not stand aloof and would provide all possible military support to Iran to make the war for USA as costly as possible. India will be in a dilemma since its investments in Chahbahar Port would get jeopardized. It would prefer to stay neutral. Pakistan will also adopt the neutral course of action but its unstable economy will nosedive due to oil crisis. Destabilized Persian Gulf and price hike in oil price will destabilize the international order and the global economy which has still not got out of the effects 2008 global recession.

If USA couldn’t succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, how does it expect to succeed against well-equipped and fully motivated Iran and that too when USA has lost its old prestige, and economic clout and has made far too many enemies. It can no more do whatever it wants and is not in position to singly win trade war against China. Its home front has become wobbly.

Power centres like China, Russia and EU have come on the centre stage and the world is on its way from unilateralism to multi-polarism. With power resting in the hands of irrational, impulsive and reckless leaders like Trump, Netanyahu and Modi, the world is in for trouble. Earlier the sanity prevails over rashness, better will it be for the wellbeing of the world.

Pakistan will have to remain extra cautious and vigilant since the standoff might have a sinister design against its security. It could be an extension of completing the strategic encirclement of Pakistan and speeding up plans to melt down its economy before opting for a military option. It is in common interest of Iran and Pakistan to mend fences and become strategic partners so that both could guard each other’s vital flanks.

The writer is retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, member CWC and think tank Pakistan ex Servicemen Society, and member Council Tehreek Jawanan Pakistan. [email protected] The article was first published in Pakistan Tribune and has been republished with permission.