Confused US Policy in the Gulf Ensures Iran’s Impunity

9 mins read

by Irina Tsukerman

While the United States is prevaricating, Iran is growing more brazen by the day.

The recent announcement that Iran hijacked yet another oil tanker, supposedly smuggling oil in the area, reported the New York Times on August 3, 2019, underscoring the perceived helplessness by US and her allies in the Middle East. That news broke right as China and a number of other countries, including Turkey, openly purchased oil from Iranian tankers in defiance of US sanctions, reported the New York Times on August 3, 2019. These developments come in amidst reports, such as by Reuters on August 5, 2019 that while UK will be joining in an international naval task force to protect oil tankers in the Gulf, Germany, which has less of a stake as it procures oil by other means, reported Deutsche Welle on July 31 2019, and Japan, reports Marine Link on August 2, 2019, will not do so.

For Germany, which sees far right populist and isolationist parties growing, getting involved in the Strait of Hormuz may be a political dead end, due to concerns about being drawn into a long term war with Iran, and the backlash against Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, explains DW columnist Christian F. Trippe in Deutsche Welle on July 31, 2019 .

As a result, it increasingly appears as though US alliance with other Western countries is crumbling, and at the very least, is growing weak, writes Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg on July 31, 2019. The recent communications mess about Rand Paul’s freelancing invitation of Iran’s FM Zarif to the White House for last minute talks, not coordinated with the White House, which was issued shortly before Zarif was sanctioned for his involvement in terrorism and described by Adam Kredow in the Washington Free Beacon on August 5, 2019 further builds on the growing impression that the US policy on Iran is either unclear even to the people in charge of it, or vulnerable to shakeups by random independent actors. The economic repercussions are also considerable, as Iran and its proxies continue making money off oil sales, while the Gulf States opposed to Tehran now has to contend with additional security issues and concerns over investor confidence.

The administration has no solution for the Houthi problem

Indecision with regards to Iran-backed rogue actors continues undermining the initially visible strength of the US alliance with the Anti-Terrorism Quartet as well. Early on Monday, August 5, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen once again attacked Saudi airports and military sites, reported Reuters on August 5, 2019 which has thus far not resulted in any action against them, their Hezbullah trainers, or their funders in Tehran. To add insult to injury, Houthis are also demanding an $80 million ransom to prevent a potential ecological disaster which may result from a million-barrel oil spill from a stalled tanker stuck in the Strait of Hormuz.

Without gaining access to the tanker, there is no way to prevent the potential ecological bomb, reports Adam Kredo in The Washington Free Beacon.

It does not help that the media and members of Congress opposed to President Trump only seem to care about human rights violations and security issues when Saudi Arabia is involved. For instance, Kredo writes in the same article, “Earlier this week, after several rockets struck a market in northern Yemen, a number of news articles attributed the attack to the Saudi coalition battling the Houthis. Those stories prompted official complaints from at least one congressional committee chairman, an individual familiar with the correspondence told the Washington Free Beacon.

However, after the Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s government contested the media accounts and insisted that the deaths occurred after the Houthis fired Katyusha rockets on the marketplace, the committee chairman was no longer interested, sources said. Media interest also dropped, and the deaths of at least 14 individuals receded from leading news sources.

The lack of interest in responding to various actions by Houthis undermine the administration’s policy of maximum pressure against Iran, coloring even the staunchest supporters of such response skeptical as to the White House’s position on the matter. This half-hearted response reflects the administration’s undecisive position in Afghanistan, where Iran plays an important role in backing Taliban and forcing the US out of the political process and Afghani forces increasingly out of the territory.

The United States retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq emboldens Iran and local terrorist organizations

Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US is challenged both by Iran and assorted non-state actors, US choose to diminish its diplomatic presence, reportedly withdrawing most staff from the embassies in Baghdad, writes Robbie Gramer for Foreign Policy on July 12, 2010 and Kabul, wrote Robbie Gramer for Foreign Policy on April 5, 2019 and thus signaling that it is essentially giving up on any diplomatic response to these regional issues.

Supposedly the move would free up staff to respond to China and Russia, which the administration views as national security priorities, but both countries have interests in Afghanistan and Iraq and cutting staff without resolving the long-term issues which brought the US into those regions to begin with will cost US in credibility and political capital to carry out its priority operations elsewhere.

Furthermore, President Trump announced that he wants all troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by the 2020 election, reports NBC on August 2, 2019, in a clear political nod to his isolationist base. However, what appears to be a rushed withdrawal signals weakness to everyone involved in the process, including Doha, the Taliban, the Pakistani ISI, which has played a detrimental role in funding and supporting the Taliban, Iran, Russia, and China. This move will surely be interpreted as US once again running with its tail between its legs after decades of unassertive, confused policies, which strove to support a status quo unsatisfying to everyone, rather than to meet its goals and achieve full political and military victory over destabilizing forces. After 18 years of US presence, Afghanistan is not any better off than under Taliban rule, as essentially, Taliban has retaken upwards of the 70% of the territory, and is responsible for increasing and deadly attacks against Afghani military and civilian forces.

Nor will it solve any issues, instead opening the door for yet another front for Iran to wage its regional proxy wars and for terrorist organizations to feed off the resulting crumbs. Meanwhile, its Middle Eastern allies are left essentially only with symbolic support, a lack of clear strategy to confront Iran and other regional threats, and a host of internal and external issues that require neutral mediators and support to be resolved with any measure of success.

The administration’s rhetoric with respect to the more immediate concerns of the Iran-generated crisis in the Gulf likewise undermines the premise that the administration understands the extent of Iran’s threat and the geopolitical repercussions of its growing meddling in the region. The White House has continued to complain about the costs of various operations and signaled that its new naval mission in the region would finally shift the burden to other actors. President Trump’s political supporters in the United States believe that the US no longer needs to rely on Middle Eastern petrodollars and can afford to sit back and watch what happens. This betrays political naivete, if not complete ignorance of the situation.

Isolationist policies ignore US interests in Middle Eastern regional security

Despite President Trump’s claims to the contrary, the United States has a vested interest in ensuring the security of the Strait of Hormuz and nearby areas. While it is reasonable to request financial and logistical assistance from other allies, claiming that the US should not be involved at all in patrolling is equally illogical as claiming that US is the only country that should be doing that in light of the common threats. US is not, contrary to common misconceptions, fully energy independent, writes Anthony H. Cordesman for CSIS on June 13, 2019, and relies on Asian countries in particular, including South Korea and Japan, for up to 30% of its energy intake.

Saudi Arabia, too remains, a major factor. Although the United States aims to be the world’s first oil exporter, it continues to import oil. Furthermore, leaving aside these myths, the US is not immune to the volatility in the markets that will be sure to follow if the international supply of oil is endangered. Meanwhile Strait of Hormuz remains largely the only viable path to delivering oil in a safe manner through international waterways for a number of Gulf Allies; other paths, via Oman, are also risky particularly in light of the recent Iranian escalation in those waters. Attempts to bypass the world’s most important trade route, reported Reuters on July 21, 2019, by building pipelines have not yet resulted in significant success. Approximately a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait.

Furthermore, despite President Trump’s comments, US Fifth Fleet, stationed in Bahrain, is tasked with protecting commercial shipment in the region. Claiming that the US will no longer be involved in any significant measure in that role would mean imperiling the relationship with Bahrain, and potentially withdrawing our forces from a small but vital base, responsible for many sensitive defense operations. Reneging on existing treaties and commitments is highly unlikely to happen without Congressional review and approval; the change of course in policy on this issue cannot be taken lightly.

The Yemen issue and the balance of power between the Arab States

Another issue framing the current concerns over Iran’s aggression are the two regional conflicts that are both linked closely to concerns over Iran. The first is the war in Yemen, where the Houthi separatists are backed by Iran, armed with sophisticated weapons, and have been trained by Hezbullahwhich retains a significant presence on the ground. The war in Yemen presents a significant political challenge in the United States; it is also a distraction for some of the smaller members of the Arab Coalition. UAE, for instance, recently withdrew a large part of its forces, in part in order to be prepared for a potential direct attack on its own citizens by Iran.

Saudi Arabia, however, remains heavily involved in Yemen. Smuggling of weapons and assorted contraband to Yemen is facilitated by the inability to patrol the area without running into IRGC boats or masked ships. Contrabandists have also used the territory of Oman for these operations. This creates a potential for dangerous escalation, and gives the maritime security project another dimension. Iran has a greater incentive to attack and deter ships from approaching the area where its own floating weapons factories provide the Houthis and Hezbullah members on the ground with supplies.

Qatar’s stand-off with the Anti-Terrorism Quartet further complicates the picture. Not only is a disunited GCC presents a challenge for the administration, which seeks to maintain good relations with both sides, but Qatar is acting in concert with Iran in many ways. The two countries share a gas field; the trade between Iran and Qatar has grown over the years; Iran and Turkey have engaged in various smuggling operations through Qatari territory. An IRGC delegation visited Qatar in 2018.

The issue is fraught with differences over the ATQ land, air, and water blockade of Qatari ships, and over a growing body of evidence that Qatar is arming the Houthis and other militant and terrorist groups vis-a-vis the Saudis and Emiratis. This angle further complicates the security landscape. Qatar is a factor to consider both as a potential member of the coalition, which means that some of the major and highly desirable “stakeholders” will automatically be out of the running, and a potential problem if it persists in the course of action seen as a threat by other members of the Sentinel.

Potential conflicts of interest

It is also unclear how bringing in Qatar, which has arguably played an important supporting role in Iranian operations, and certainly has taken sides with Iran politically (including opposing the designation of the IRGC responsible for oil tanker attacks as terrorist organization) on US obligations in Bahrain and elsewhere.

If President Trump indeed seeks to release the US Navy from its duties, then the question should be brought up to Congress and be subjected to a vigorous debate. Otherwise, such comments betray a fundamental lack of understanding of existing US relationships and commitments, which, whatever one’s thoughts about what the US role in the region should be, betrays the sort of dilettantism that any state or non-state adversary will be sure to exploit.

This would not be the first time oil tankers would be at the center of major military conflagrations.The 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war saw the two countries trying to destroy each other’s supplies. It proved ruinous to Iran, but had also emboldened Saddam Hussein, and arguably resulted in his change from a self-contained local strongman to a brutal dictator, an invader of local states, and an arrogant threat whose bluster eventually led to his self-destruction and left an opening for Iran to make a decisive comeback. Despite Iran’s significant deterioration at the time, the conflict, put the global supply of oil at risk. The situation today is much more serious, as it is not Saddam Hussein but friendly US allies that are under attack.

Signaling its disinterest in an active role in the security of the region shows a lack of understanding of the role the US is playing commercially and economically, not just militarily and politically. It also means sacrificing political capital for the sake of scoring political points with a segment of the public that largely has little interact with that particular sector of the economy.

Meanwhile, while the United States is prevaricating, Iran is growing more brazen by the day, even with its very weak and damaged cards and unimpressive navy and heavy artillery.

Article taken from Medium.

Irina Tsukerman is a New-York based Human Rights Lawyer, National Security Analyst. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.

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