Donald Trump tweeted that Iran made a very big mistake! but has now backed off regarding the shooting down of the US drone. In this post Urooj Hanafi examines the earlier attacks on the Japanese Kokuka Courageous and Norwegian Front Altair.
Tensions have escalated as regional and global rivalries have come into play due to the recent attacks on the Japanese Kokuka Courageous and Norwegian Front Altair on 13 June near the Persian Gulf. The incident demands that two vital questions be addressed: who committed the deed? Who benefitted the most from the attacks? Iran has been adamant in its denial of the attacks, but the US, citing rather blurry photographic and video-based evidence unequivocally blames the former believing that the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) use of limpet mines caused the explosions on the two tankers. The Trump administration appears to be taking a gamble: use a “maximum pressure” strategy to force Iran in line with its wishes or risk a conflict in an already volatile region. In December 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) while additionally bringing an end to any sanction waivers that allowed certain countries to import oil from Iran.
The economic effects have been dire forcing the Iranian economy into a slump as the finance sector and oil revenues have taken a serious hit. However, the US policy of “maximum pressure” is highly questionable because inciting forced radical change is likely to lead to an eventual backlash. Even if Iran were to capitulate to US demands, most likely through the imposition of US-leaning leaders implementing western ideals, the people would retaliate possibly leading to a second Iran revolution setting rapprochement with Iran decades behind. It comes as no surprise that Saudi Arabia, a current US favorite due to its purchase of US weapons and a buffer against Iranian influence in the Middle East, loyally stands by US claims and has generously promised to increase oil production along with the UAE in order to help re-stabilize global oil prices.
Trump also plans to frame the current Iran crisis as “an emergency [that] exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States,” a provision in the weapon exports law, to bypass Congress and sell $8 billion worth of weapons to the Kingdom most of which will be used to inflict further suffering in the fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It seems rather convenient that the attacks benefit the Kingdom as it increases its oil revenue and market share, strengthens ties with the US while simultaneously undercutting its long-time Muslim and regional rival’s standing internationally.
The UK’s Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, has backed the US narrative believing no other party could be responsible for such an attack and there is no reason to doubt the US. However, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn disagrees with this view recommending that the UK proceed with caution. The UK is unlikely to take an active stance on the issue preferring to simply support the US while it struggles with its own internal crisis regarding a Brexit deal.
While certain powers have chosen to back the US, Japan, a long-standing US friend, has hesitated in accusing Iran of the attacks due to a lack of “conclusive evidence” preferring to wait for the results of a private UN investigation. It is important to note that the president of Kokuka Sangyo stated, “Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object.” This goes against US claims and forces us to question the credibility of US accusations.
Additionally there may be a second reason the US is determined to accuse Iran of the attacks: Trump, much to the surprise of his own generals and advisors announced the withdrawal of US troops as a result of ISIS being defeated on 18 December. Those who disagreed with the move such as the then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned. However, it was only a short while later that on 6 January National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Israel where he accepted conditions that could delay US withdrawal of troops for months or years. This was soon followed by Pompeo’s statement that he would “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. It is only natural that Israel, surrounded by hostile neighbors, is reluctant to allow for the diminished presence of US troops in the region.
Perhaps then Trump has been clever after all: he appeared to make good on his promises to withdraw US troops from foreign lands, but has now been able to use the recent attacks as a cover and justification for deploying 1000 troops to the Middle East to maintain US presence.
Till recently much was left to speculation about whether Iran was responsible for the attacks. It seemed ill planned that Iran should attack two tankers particularly a Japanese one during Shinzo Abe’s visit which was meant to de-escalate tension between the US and Iran. However, today the IRGC shot down a US military surveillance drone- a move that does not bode well for Iran as the act supports the US stance that Iran committed the crime, has hostile intentions and the IRGC is a terrorist organization.
The act also forces the international community to seriously question Iran’s intentions: Iran has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz- a strategic chokepoint through which 30% of the world’s oil supply is transported while also stating by 27 June its stockpile of enriched Uranium will exceed the limit set in the JCPOA unless European powers step in and take action. Iran still seeks a peaceful solution as demonstrated by its advance warning regarding its enriched uranium and has successfully passed tests by international watchdog, IEAE, to prove its commitment. Perhaps Iran simply fell victim to what Russia has called “US provocation” or perhaps Iran may be betting that its militaristic response will force the US to back down.
China continues to prioritize stability for the sake of its economic interests. As one of the largest importers of Iranian oil with state-owned firms having invested in the country, China is unhappy with US sanctions. In light of the recent Huawei crisis, China understands that disregarding US sanctions will have consequences for itself leaving it to largely accept US terms. Thus, Beijing has been calling for peace as its top diplomat Wang stated:
We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s Box
Overall, China shares Russian opinion that Washington’s unilateral actions have fanned the flames for the current crisis.
For years, Iran has stood strong in the face of international isolation and it is unlikely that US pressure will force it to accept an imposed upon agreement. In the face of mounting pressure, the US and Iran both seem to be taking a dangerous gamble that one side will be forced to give in to the other as each believes that the other does not consider a military conflict feasible.
From current reports, it may appear that Iran has successfully called the US’s bluff as Trump quickly withdrew orders for a military strike on Friday in response to Iran shooting down the US drone. The situation remains tense as the reason behind Trump’s withdrawal remains unclear: did he change his mind about the matter or does he wish to rework his strategy due to logistical and administrative concerns? As of now no lives have been lost in the conflict making de-escalation a much hoped-for reality. Overall, the ongoing standoff between the two nations is a very dangerous gamble. If things deteriorate any further then surely everyone in the world will be a loser.
The author Urooj Hanafi has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a major in Political Science from IBA, Karachi. She is soon to enroll in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in the University of Washington as a Fulbright scholar.
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