Military Escalation In Gulf Waters: Motives And Prospects

Monitoring and Analysis Unit
16 Jan 2021

Since the withdrawal of the US, under the Trump administration, from the nuclear agreement in 2018, and its practice of a policy of maximum pressure against Iran, represented by the imposition of economic sanctions on most Iranian entities and personalities, including the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution Ali Khamenei; and the classification of Iranian military components (the Revolutionary Guards and others) as terrorist organisations; the pace of mutual escalation between Washington and Tehran intensified, and tension returned to Gulf waters in particular and the Middle East in general.

The mechanisms of US political and economic pressure extended to military threat, which was represented by the presidential mandate that Trump granted in mid-May 2019. This was through the Fifth Naval Fleet to respond directly to any attack that would threaten the safety of American soldiers and ships in the region without going through complex military protocols. 

This was followed by the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, inside Iraqi territories on January 3, 2020, which was followed by limited Iranian bombing of ballistic missiles on two air bases in Erbil and Ain Al-Assad, west of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards announced, on April 22, 2020, the launch of the military satellite ‘Noor-1’, which carried the image of Soleimani on the missile's structure. This was successfully stabilised in its orbit around the Earth. Consequently, this escalated matters between Washington and Tehran again to higher levels. The Trump administration was quick to condemn this escalation, and considered it a prelude to more advanced missile and intelligence tests.

This assessment of the situation examines the motives and contexts of the current escalation between Washington and Tehran in Gulf waters, as well as the implications of this escalation.

Context of recent events in the Gulf waters

Recently the pace of US military moves in the Gulf waters had increased dramatically, as the commander of the US forces in the Middle East confirmed the readiness of his forces to respond to any possible attack by Iran. The US Navy said in a statement, on December 21, 2020, that the nuclear submarine USS Georgia crossed the Strait of Hormuz accompanied by the two cruisers Port Royal and Philippine Sea, noting that this confirms the Fifth Fleet’s right of navigation wherever international law permits.

Concurrently, Israel made a military move towards the Gulf. Intelligence sources reported that a submarine belonging to the Israeli Navy crossed the Suez Canal on December 20, heading towards the Gulf waters after the approval of Egyptian authorities.

By doing that, Israel wanted to send a message to Tehran that it was fully prepared to respond to any hostile act against it or against any Israeli targets in retaliation for the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Zadeh, who Iran accused Tel Aviv of plotting.

The New York Times revealed, on January 2, that the Pentagon decided to withdraw the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which sails off the coast of Somalia outside the Gulf, with the aim of de-escalating with Iran and avoiding any military action in the last days of President Donald Trump’s term. However, the US Department of Defence reversed the decision to withdraw the carrier, and decided to keep it in the Gulf waters to face any potential Iranian threat in the region.

Furthermore, last Thursday, the two US B-52 bombers headed towards the Gulf, as part of a fourth mission in just two months to deter Iran from undertaking military attacks. According to a US Defence ministry official, they showed increasing levels of maximum defence preparations. 

Meanwhile, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei announced, on January 4, that President Rouhani gave orders to start the procedures of enriching uranium with a rate of 20% at the Fordo facility, in implementation of the parliament's decision in December 2020. The decision obliges the government to increase the rate of enriching uranium in response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhri Zadeh, the country's top nuclear scientist.

Iran has not reached this percentage of uranium enrichment since the nuclear agreement, which allowed Tehran to enrich it at a rate of no more than 3.67%. However, Iran has confirmed that this percentage is a vital necessity for the Tehran reactor, and that if the other parties fulfil their obligations in the nuclear agreement, Iran will stop the enrichment swiftly. 

Last Tuesday, Iran’s army began large-scale manoeuvres for the land, sea and air forces, displaying the combat and intelligence capabilities of drones and the defence ability of anti-aircraft weapons. 

This came along with the confirmation of Iran’s Assistant Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, Abbas Araghchi, of Iran’s ability to respond directly and with no pre-warning against any attack. He also stated that all US military bases in the region are under the microscope of the Iranian armed forces. 

The motives of the two sides towards escalation

Despite Iran's attempt to show tactical flexibility by avoiding red lines with Washington and choosing indirect alternative means when its targets are attacked - to reduce the possibility of escalation, it has recently stepped up its tone of defiance. Iran’s officials declared their country's military readiness to protect its nuclear capabilities and the interests of its ideological hegemony in the region.

Iran wants this escalation to deliver a message to its opponents that any escalation and punitive action against it will be followed by more countermeasures. It also wanted to deliver a message to the US and its allies that it is a state with great influence inside the Gulf waters, and that it can cause disruption and negative implications on the global navigation traffic, and thus influence global economy.

Furthermore, the regime in Tehran, through its recent escalation with Washington, wanted to reduce the burden imposed on it by Iran’s public opinion regarding its pledge to be harsh in its response to the assassination of Soleimani and Zadeh.

As for the US, the most important objective of its military movements inside the Gulf waters was to ensure the security of its interests in the region, especially those related to oil resources and international trade crossing the Strait of Hormuz. Washington also wanted to strengthen its military presence in the Gulf to send reassuring messages to its allies in the region that it will deal with any possible fallout from an Iranian move against Israel or the Gulf states.

On the ground, intelligence information revealed the existence of an Iranian plan to target US sites in Iraq through Iran's transfer of short-range ballistic missiles to Iraq. This led to an increase in the number of US military units in the region, as a US warning message to Iran’s moves.

Scenarios

Many observers believe that the escalation between Washington and Tehran is nothing more than a war of words and political propaganda between the two parties, especially that since the US’s exit from the nuclear agreement, the Gulf waters have witnessed a number of dangerous frictions between the naval forces of the two parties without this leading to intense military confrontations. 

But on the other hand, the scale of escalation between the two sides which recently reached high levels was notable, especially with the increasing pace of US military action and Israel’s entry into the equation by entering the Gulf waters. Accordingly, the scenarios during the next phase are expected to be as follows:

The first scenario: Escalation towards military action in the region

This scenario expects the two sides to move towards combat readiness and maximum military mobilisation, waiting for any attack from one side in order to respond from the other side.

This scenario corresponds with the US military moves in the region, particularly the stability of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and other naval vessels in Gulf waters in the past weeks. Moreover, there are the exercises and displays of Iran's military capabilities, and the statements of its military officials declaring that they are fully prepared to defend Iran’s interests in the Gulf waters. 

This scenario also assumes that a third party - chiefly Israel - will take part in direct strikes against Iran, which pushes the region into escalation. The recent period has witnessed successive Israeli statements warning that it would take whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from carrying out any hostile act against it. It also warns against Tehran's nuclear capability that threatens the presence of Israel in the region. 

Israel’s adoption of a number of military and intelligence moves inside Iran’s territory and in the vicinity of its allies, Syria and Iraq, demonstrates its desire to move towards a military escalation with Iran in the next stage.

The Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular, similar to Israel, are on a high level of readiness in anticipation of any military action in the Gulf waters. It may show military cooperation in any possible attack on Iran with indirect participation in leading it. This is especially apparent with the announcement of the Saudi Ministry of Defence, last Friday evening, of the participation of Saudi’s F-15 fighters in a military exercise with the US B-52 bombers.

This scenario of military escalation has two possibilities:

The first possibility: The outbreak of an all-out war in the Middle East

This path bets on the movement of the conflicting parties towards igniting a war that extends to the entire Middle East region, especially if the pillars of the regime in Iran are targeted by the US or Israel. This would be followed by moves by Tehran and its forces in the region - Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon - which would result in the entire region entering a cycle of total conflict.

Factors supporting this possibility:

·      Tehran regime's desire to employ the state of war to cover its economic and development failure, and to demonstrate its military capabilities to unify the view of the domestic front against an external enemy.

·      Israel and Saudi Arabia’s fears regarding Iran's expansion of its nuclear program after Biden took power, especially since Israel started targeting Iran’s interests, and Mohammed bin Salman is coming closer to ruling Saudi Arabia and undertaking a more hostile foreign policy towards Iran.

·      Trump's attempt to shuffle the cards before his departure and to involve the new administration in thorny files in the Middle East region.

However, there are several factors that undermine this possibility:

·      The exorbitant cost of the war undermines the movement of the two sides towards this approach, as the regime in Tehran is going through a suffocating economic crisis as a result of the blockade and the US sanctions imposed upon it. The inflation rate in Iran increased from 11.9% in 2014 to 34.9% in 2018, and the unemployment rate rose to 25%, with half of the population living below the poverty line. 

On the other hand, the US economy is suffering from a real setback due to the Corona pandemic and the escalation of the economic war between Washington and Beijing, which makes the US administration not want to rush to the decision of war. 

·      The countries of the region, especially the Gulf states, fear of the security and economic repercussions of the war makes them hesitant to support Washington's entry into a comprehensive war with Tehran. It has even pushed some of them - Oman and Qatar - to initiate mediation and negotiation between the two conflicting parties.

·      The internal crisis that afflicts Trump in his last days prevents Washington from carrying out any escalating action against Iran at present, especially after the subsequent crises where his supporters stormed the Congress building, last Wednesday.

Implications of the first scenario (the all-out war possibility)

If Iran loses the war, the expectations are:

·      The fall of the guardianship of the jurist regime in Iran and the country’s entry into a period of broad political change.

·      Limiting Iran’s expansion in the region, and the collapse and weakness of its arms, in a way that paves the way for a new map of powers and influence.

·      Imposing US conditions and dictates on the negotiations of Iran’s nuclear file.

·      The change in the balance of international powers in Syria, paving the way for reducing the size of the Russian presence there.

If Iran wins the war, the expectations are:

·       Countries in the Middle East region will enter a phase of overwhelming chaos and instability, with undefined roles of international powers.

·       An increase in the activity of terrorist organisations in the region, and an expansion of the range of regional and international attacks, taking advantage of the state of collapse prevailing in the region.

·       Tehran would impose its conditions relating to its nuclear file on the international community and expand the development of its nuclear weapons and military.

·       Strengthening of Iran’s influence in the region, and the Gulf states entering a direct conflict with Iran.

·       Consolidation of the domestic front of Iran and a decline in the popular anti-government protests.

The second possibility: Strikes on specific targets or limited military confrontations

This possibility assumes that the military movements of the two sides in the region does not grant one side any justification for a comprehensive war in the Middle East, with the aim of preserving the US interests in the region on one hand, and paving the way for a nuclear agreement with the new US administration on the other.

This approach is expected to be limited to controlled strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities or military targets; Washington would move away from targeting key bases of Iran’s regime and Iran would avoid responding to a war with the US in return.

Factors supporting this possibility:

·      Tehran's behaviour in the recent escalation, when Iran was content with its limited bombing of US forces in Iraq, in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

·      Iran and its militias in Iraq declared that they were not responsible for the bombing of the Green Zone with ‘Katyusha’ missiles on December 20, 2020, which indicates the Iranian regime's unwillingness to grant the US administration any reason for escalating an all-out war.

·      Iran showed its efforts to negotiate after announcing the start of uranium enrichment at a rate of 20%, stating that if all parties abide by the terms of the agreement, they will review it. This indicates that Iran does not want to ignite the war with the US, but rather, exert pressure on European countries and the new US administration to conclude a new satisfactory agreement.

Repercussions of the second possibility (specific strikes) in two main directions:

·      The strikes turning into an all-out war between the US, Israel and the Gulf states, on the one hand, and Tehran and its proxies in the region on the other, evolving into a war with implications of the first possibility mentioned above.

·      Or it may lead to the parties sitting at the negotiating table and settling tensions in the region, provided Iran shows composure by not responding to the strikes.

The second scenario: The cautious calm in the Gulf waters, followed by de-escalation

This scenario assumes that all parties to the conflict maintain restraint and refrain from any military action, to reach a solution to the tension in the Gulf waters after Biden assumes his duties on January 20. This is especially so since the chances of a US strike against Iran under the Trump administration in the last few days have decreased dramatically. This is because of the escalation of the Democrats' demands for Trump to be tried in parliament, and to have Amendment 25 of the Constitution activated which would lead to the removal of Trump, as a result of the congressional storming by protesters supporting him.

This scenario also expects a number of international or regional efforts to contain the escalation in the Gulf waters, and the region not to be drawn into the spectre of war. This is to protect the region and the world, in turn, from the negative effects of war on the international economy, security and global peace.

Factors driving this scenario:

·      The statements of elected President Biden during the elections, where he expresses his intention to change the course of his foreign policy and return to the diplomatic approach in dealing with Iran's nuclear file. This indicates the possibility of settling tension in the Gulf region and not being drawn into military action against Iran.

·      Pressure from the European side for negotiations and reaching a de-escalation between the conflicting parties, with the aim of ensuring its economic interests with Tehran, as well as protecting its borders from immigration of refugees in the event of a new humanitarian crisis as a result of the war. This reflects the desire of the international community to move towards calm and ending the tension in the Gulf region.

However, the tremendous military movements and activities of the two sides in the Gulf waters prevent events from heading towards calm, and suggest the presence of military action in the near future, especially since a small spark in the Middle East region quickly turns into a fierce war, where the various powers compete over oil and gas fields and international navigation.

The implications of the ‘de-escalation’ scenario are as follows:

·       The two sides begin negotiations for the nuclear program, whereby conditions for a new agreement are reached that include stopping the production of nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting the US economic sanctions imposed, and rehabilitating Iran's infrastructure.

·       Washington's reliance on a more diplomatic policy based on settling deals and understandings in the Middle East region. This allows for its priority to be shifted to other issues such as global trade, China, border problems and the economy.

·       Establishing Iran’s influence in the region and empowering its proxies more in the countries within its sphere of influence. This may push the forces that reject Iran’s expansion to raise their combat capabilities and military preparations to confront the threat of Iran’s influence.

·       The forces affected by Iran's growing influence in the region - after the start of the calm phase - may seek to gradually escalate against it again, especially since Middle Eastern powers all agree on the need for the region to be free of Iran’s nuclear weapons.