Prospects of Military Escalation in the Gulf Region
The Gulf has been subject to a wave of attacks and military escalations, affecting Saudi and Emirati interest. Both countries considered this situation as a threat to international interests given the economic nature of the targeted facilities. Escalating become more serious since the 12 May attack on four oil tankers, two of which were Saudi, off the Emirati coast near the port of Fujairah, and on ARAMCO oil-pumping line, in addition to sending US forces to the region. These factors predict war footing between the Republic of Iran and its allies in the region, especially the armed Houthi group in Yemen on the one hand, and the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other hand.
The events, which prompted Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, to hold two emergency Arab and Gulf summits in Mecca on 30 May on the sidelines of the regular Islamic Summit Conference, highlight the gravity of the security situation in the Gulf region. They had also reflected the parties to the conflict or a third party’s willingness to send a warning against the repercussions of escalation and how dangerous waging a war on Iran or prompting any other country to do so are. This comes amid the policy of brinkmanship the administration of US President Donald Trump is adopting against Iran, which is used to force displaying in the region.
This assessment of the situation provides a review of the contexts of the attacks that have taken place and the ongoing escalation, addressing the international motives and positions, and the prospects of escalation following specific scenarios.
The attacks occurred following a series of sanction the administration of US President Donald Trump has imposed on Iranian interests and entities, in addition to US dispatching additional troops to the region, following reports expecting Iranian attacks against US interests and allies.
On 22 April, the Trump administration announced refraining exemptions granted as regard to sanctions imposed on the purchase of Iranian oil starting from May. The decision aims to affect Iran's oil exports. Not only did the US administration withdraw from the nuclear agreement, but it has also imposed economic sanctions on many Iranian institutions and figures. The US also imposed sanctions on the mining sector, classified the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization and warned foreign companies against breaking these sanctions and deal with the aforementioned parties.
According to its ministry of foreign affairs, the UAE's exclusive economic zone has been subject to assaults on 12 May, damaging four oil tankers, two of which are Saudi. Sources (Washington Institute) revealed that the ships were about five to twelve kilometers off the coast of the UAE near Fujairah port.
The attacks that were carried out outside the Strait of Hormuz and the limited damage the divergent ships were subject to reflected the ability to cause harm, but not inflict serious damage on the ships this time. This ability is not limited to sending threats in the Strait of Hormuz and the waters of the Arabian Gulf only.
On 14 May, Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, Khalid al-Falih, stressed that two drones sent by the Houthis in Yemen targeted two pumping stations along the oil pipeline in eastern Saudi Arabia carrying oil from the eastern region fields to the Red Sea. On the other hand, Houthis declared that seven drones targeted vital facilities, including ARAMCO in Riyadh.
The Houthi group’s escalation occurred after the calm military fronts have witnessed, and them sending several messages communicating their desire to negotiate. During the last period of time, the aircrafts of Coalition’s bombings of Houthi-held sites in the Yemeni capital Sana have almost stopped.
The Yemeni news agency Saba (the version affiliated to Houthis) quoted a Houthi military source saying that targeting the Saudi ARAMCO facilities marked the beginning of military operations against 300 vital and military targets. The agency reported the source, claiming that the targets include military buildings and facilities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In the Iraqi capital Baghdad, a Katyusha missile fell near the US embassy, believed to be the target.
On 15 May, the US State Department ordered non-essential government officials to leave the US Embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil, Reuters reported on 15 May, 2019.
Positions and Motives of Conflicting Parties
Saudi-Iranian relations are experiencing a period of deadlock. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of running a proxy war and destabilizing the countries of the region. On the other hand, during Donald Trump’s term the US-Iranian relations have been characterized by jeopardized agreements and tensions caused by the US sanctions. UAE is trying to balance its economic interests and curb Iranian influence, relying on the Saudi and US roles. Meanwhile, Iran is working to circumvent economic sanctions, avoid war and win the positions of major countries that do not approve of the US president policy.
Saudi Arabia has dealt with the attacks, after classifying them as terrorist - according to a statement issued after the meeting of the Council of Ministers headed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz (on 9 Ramadan 1440 Hijjri corresponding to 14 May 2019, the official Saudi Press Agency SPA), in two directions; the first consists of indicting Iran and its allies in Yemen (the armed Houthi movement). The second path is to consider the attacks on the targeted facilities, i.e. sources of energy (oil) and vessels for oil transportation, as a threat to international interests; and to demand that the international community exert pressure on Iran. The Saudi Kingdom pledged to work on preventing war in the region. Thus, King Salman bin Abdulaziz decided to hold two Gulf and Arab summits in Mecca on 30 May, on the sidelines of the regular Islamic summit, in order to discuss the repercussions of the ongoing tensions on the stability of the region. It is expected that a consensus on supporting the Saudi position will be reached at the end of the summits, and messages of pressure will be on the way to Iran.
On 16 May, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman tweeted that the terrorist attack launched by Iranian-backed Houthi militias on two of Aramco's pumping stations confirms that the Houthi movement’s mission is not to protect Yemeni citizens as they claim, but rather to serve Iran’s political agenda and expansionist project in the region.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stated on 16 May that the Houthis have confirmed that they are carrying out the Iranian agenda and consecrating the Yemeni people’s riches and sovereignty in favor of Iran. He added that the Houthi movement, as an integral part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), receives orders from the Iranian authorities; a fact that was further demonstrated after the attack on the Kingdom’s oil facilities.
The Kingdom has welcomed the suspension of Iran's oil exemptions and supported the move taken by the United States to force the Iranian regime to stop its destabilizing policies, in addition to its support and sponsorship of terrorism around the world. The Saudi government has also worked to re-build relations with the Iraqi government.
United Arab Emirates’ Position
The UAE appeared to be more cautious in its accusations. Hence, the Emirati authorities did not disclose the results of the investigation, which it said it would carry out. It is worthy to mention that the UAE described the attacks on ships as sabotage, opening the way for international interventions that might classify the aggression as terrorist acts that compromise international interests. Considering the significant economic interests between the UAE and Iran, the UAE will attempt to redirect its dual conflict with the Iranians into a regional and international conflict.
Iran seeks to avoid a direct war with the United States, while resisting the imposed sanctions. As such, the Iranians are aware of the threat posed by the sanctions, in the near and medium terms, on their country’s status, military capabilities as well as on its weak and exhausted economy. Nonetheless, the Iranian authorities recognize the repercussions of these punitive provisions on the Iranian society and security and its destabilizing effects on Iran’s funding capacity directed to its allies in the region.
Iran has denied being involved in the bombings, as far as the attack is concerned, hinting at questioning the accusations and referring to the involvement of a third country. Later, Iranian officials spoke of the desire of some countries in the region to drag the United States into a war with Iran. Head of National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran's Shura Council, Hishmatullah Fallah Bishah, accused Saudi Arabia of attempting to cause "overwhelming chaos" in the region, according to official Iranian news agency.
Iran also refused to return to the negotiating table under threats and sanctions, and demanded othe countries concerned with the nuclear agreement to fulfill their economic obligations, while announcing the suspension of some of its commitments regarding the nuclear agreement and quadruple its production of enriched uranium. The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed its total rejection of being forced to choose between negotiations and war, stressing Iran's ability to withstand and confront.
The statements of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, criticizing the positions and performance of some reformist officials in the negotiations and managing the crisis, revealed the extent of differences that the government of President Hassan Rouhani is trying to dispel, while asking the Iranian people and leadership to support the government in resisting the threats.
It was clear that the Iranian political leadership feared the consequences of the escalation with the United States, as it attempted to avoid war and reassure the Iranian people. On 14 May, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the idea of negotiating with the United States as "poisonous;" however, at the same time he consoled the people that "neither the US nor Iran is seeking war. They know that waging a war will not serve their interests."
In the same context, leaders of the IRGC excluded the option of the outbreak of war, as they asserted that the Iranian army and the IRGC are fully aware of the movements of US warships in the region. Hence, Iran's bet on the increase of oil prices and the loyalty of other signatories to the nuclear agreement has failed to ease the sanctions and assist the Iranian economy.
The United States’ Position
President Trump's administration has announced that attacks against the interests of the United States and its allies in the region are expected to take place, according to reports; claiming that Iran has incited its allies, including armed militias, in the region to target US interests. The US stated that sending "warships led by the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), B-52 long-range heavy bombers, and MIM-104 Patriot missiles" is meant to deter Iran and prevent potential attacks, and not to wage a war, except in case of necessity. On the other hand, there are contradicted reports about Trump’s demand to send more troops to the area. Thus, news about Gulf countries’ consent to deploy US troops in the region was also leaked, reported Reuters in May 2019.
US President Donald Trump tweeted: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!" As such, Trumps’ economic motives and his attempt to gain the sympathy of extreme conservatives inside the United States, in the context of the upcoming presidential elections, could play a role in the escalation.
A Reuters / Ipsos public opinion poll published on 21 May, 2019 showed that half of Americans believed the United States would go to war with Iran "within the next few years."
Israeli leaders perceive the Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s missile capabilities and the presence of elements of the Quds Force, affiliated to the IRGC, in Syria as a threat to the Zionist entity’s national security. For years, the occupation authorities have been inciting countries and leaking information about the possibility of launching a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Apparently, Israel’s concerns about the consequences prevented it from bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor for a second time during the early 1980s. Therefore, Israel sees Trump’s administration as an opportunity to minimize threats to its national security and as a tool to exert further pressure on Iran in order to divert from its danger, especially after the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and annexing the Golan Heights to the Israeli territories.
Regional and International Positions
All countries warned of the danger of escalation, and called for spearing the region further crises, as some states refused the US’s lift of exemptions on the purchase of oil from Iran. At the beginning, the European countries have dealt with the news that four ships were attacked in the Gulf region with a sense of caution. The Europeans denounced Iran's subsequent threats and actions to breach some of the terms of the nuclear deal, including the threat to withdraw from the accord, while calling on the Iranian authorities to continue to honor its commitment to the nuclear agreement. British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has advised Iran, on behalf of his country, to avoid provoking the United States, indicating: "They do not want a war with Iran, but if the US interests are attacked, the Americans will fire back. This is something that Iranians need to consider very carefully," reported Reuters on 20 May, 2019.
The Gulf states are aware of the dangers of war. In an effort to calm the situation and offer mediation, the Omani foreign minister visited the Iranian capital and met with officials there. The Iraqi government also called for dialogue and offered its mediation to help spare the region a potential war. The Iraqi Foreign Minister affirmed his country's commitment to support its neighbor Iran, while the Emir of the State of Kuwait was keen to strengthen national unity, calling on security and military institutions to stay alert and be prepared to deal with the threats. Thus, he warned of the danger of the outbreak of a war of uncalculated risk in the region, calling for the preservation of the gains of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). On the other hand, Russian Foreign Ministry stated that it is too early to talk about mediation between the Arab countries and Iran. Hence, the Russian, Turkish and Chinese governments have denounced the US threats against Iran and urged the conflicting parties to remain calm.
The nature of the unusual escalation in the Gulf region and the development of US-Iranian relations make the prospects of escalation confirm to two different scenarios:
This scenario assumes that a war will erupt, even at a limited scale, as a result of repeated attacks on vital interests, confrontations between conflicting forces in the Gulf, or limited attacks and bombing nuclear facilities as a culmination of the ongoing escalation. Thus, tightening the economic sanctions on Iranian oil exports and mining sector and categorizing many Iranian institutions and personalities as terrorists, in addition to deploying more troops in the region, could push Iran to destabilize the Gulf’s waters and Western interests.
This scenario reinforces the mobilization of US forces, the position of the Trump administration's team vis à vis extremist conservatives, led by US national security advisor John Bolton, in addition to the United States’ desire to weaken the presence of international powers, most notably China, i.e. the United States’ most prominent rival. Nonetheless, Israel is also playing a role in inciting against Iran, while attempting to profit from Donald Trump's presidential term, as the latter has shown significant identification with the Israeli policy and served its interests.
Such scenario may be weakened by the absence of Western support for the United States despite the US administration’s ability to wage war on its own. However, Trump needs international support, even at a minimum level, in addition to being aware of the serious repercussions that may befall the region’s countries and energy sources due to such war.
Scenario of Alternate Provocations and Statements
In the near term, the scenario predicts the continuation of US-Iranian relations, as well as Saudi-Iranian relations, in their usual context, as countries try to avoid getting events out of control and causing war.
Despite the current escalation in the Gulf, there are still doubts about its gravity and motives, especially between the United States and Iran, in light of its transformation over the past decades and cooperation between the two countries in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States is carrying out the so-called policy of brinkmanship with Iran, based on verbal threats and military preparations, with the aim of exercising psychological and material pressure on it. In this policy, the two possibilities of turning to war and the remaining of the situation as it is may be even, in case there is no tendency towards war, and negotiations are often held to prevent the outbreak of war. At the same time, the Gulf states are financially drained in exchange for protection, which is the goal that Trump has conveyed before talking about confronting Iran.
This hypothesis reinforces the past contexts of both countries' policies and the pattern of crisis management for which the United States is known.
This scenario is based on the assumption that the aim of the escalation is to push Iran to renegotiate the nuclear issue, in addition to its missile program, its military presence with its armed wings (Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias) in Syria, and the dilution of its allies’ powers in the region. The statements made by US President Donald Trump and Iranian leader Ali Khamenei have confirmed that the war is unlikely to occur.
This scenario reinforces the US policy of tightening sanctions and embargoes to weaken the powers of the target country, such as the Iraqi situation, before waging war on it if necessary, as well as the Iranian policy that represents a cover for the US intervention and presence in the region, in addition to US President Donald Trump’s management of the North Korea file, where threats have led to negotiations and meetings with the North Korean president.