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Darkening cloud over the Gulf: Iran and the West

By Charles Onunaiju

RECENTLY, Iran paratroopers of its elite Revolutionary Guard made a spectacular dash to a British flagged ship in the busy Strait of Hormuz, arresting and escorting the ship to its nearby port of Bander Abass, with an accusation that it obstructed Iranian fishing boats. But everyone knows Tehran has just made good its earlier threat of retaliation over the seizure of its oil tanker at Gibraltar earlier in July by the British Navy, at the prodding of the US, on the pretext that the ship was sailing with its cargo of oil to Syria, in breach of sanctions against Damascus.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: says oil sale will continue in spite of Trump sanctions
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: says oil sale will continue in spite of Trump sanctions

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Tehran warned that London and her Washington ally would very shortly hear from it, and has now clearly demonstrated that it does not issue  empty threats. Earlier, when the $130 million unmanned US drone allegedly flew menacingly near the Iranian waters, Tehran’s military authorities after warnings according to its own account, brought down the drone. US President, Mr. Donald Trump, said he called off a supposedly devastating military retaliation against Iranian targets 10 minutes before commencing operations, after an unnamed US General drew his attention that over 150 Iranians would perish in such military operation.

Mr. Trump said the idea of taking down nearly 200 hundred lives for an unmanned drone did not hold much appeal to him. It is, however, curious that no US economist or other experts are telling the US president that the punitive sanctions which he is ever tightening against Iran is daily mauling Iran’s most vulnerable population in their thousands, if not millions. Trump’s turn-around on military strikes against Iran may actually not be unconnected with the vulnerability of US assets in the region and beyond, in the instance of all-out military confrontation with Tehran.

Since the NATO invasion of Libya and assassination of its long-term leader, Colonel Muamer Ghaddaffi, every serious nation has learnt that appeasing the West does not bring any reward. The late Ghaddaffi dismantled his rudimentary nuclear programme, welcomed Western political figures and even allegedly provided funds to support political parties in the West, in a desperate bid to return to the Western-dominated liberal international order; but he got his country invaded and himself brutally assassinated.

Iran, which threw away its own pro-Western bankrupt Shah Pahlavi monarchy in 1979 has lived under the shadow of the West’s subversion and even fought a grueling eight-year war with neighboring Iraq, under which Washington and the conservative Gulf states generously bankrolled the Iraqi war machine.

Tehran was badly bruised in the war but not beaten and the current strength of Iran defence industry was not unconnected with the long years of devastating sanctions and imposed war.

Despite the simmering and low-level conflict between Iran and the West on the one hand, and Tehran’s conservative Arab neighbours led by Saudi Arabia, on the other, normalcy seemed to have returned in the region, especially with the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2015 until Trump pulled out of the programme and resumed manoeuvres for regime-change in Tehran. With a foreign policy team comprising Mr. John Bolton, an unabashed campaigner for regime-change in Iran as National Security Adviser and the Saudi Arabia-cuddling Secretary of State, Mr. Mike Pompeo, the region was set to boil under President Trump, with Iran as the targeted epicentre of the fresh turmoil.

With the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and the five members of UN Security Council, plus Germany ignominiously dumped by Trump’s Washington, and punitive sanctions tightened further to squeeze Tehran in a so-called campaign of maximum pressure, the Iranian leadership knew very well that capitulation is the easiest path to self-destruction.

Though, the European Union has pledged to stay the course of the meticulously negotiated nuclear deal, the US sanction prerogative to penalise any European company doing business with Tehran has left the Europeans with little room to manoeuvre. The British were well disposed to doing Washington’s bidding by arresting the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar under the pretext that the ship allegedly en route to Syria was breaking international sanctions against Damascus. But if Iran was not a signatory to any sanctions against Syria why would Tehran be obliged to enforce it. And more importantly, Iran is well known to have played a decisive role in defeating the terrorist-infested Syrian armed insurgents that fought desperately to overthrow the government in Syria.

With Tehran now making good her threat to make London pay for arresting its civilian oil tanker, which it called “piracy,” what next for the increasing tension in the Gulf? President Trump who recently made a claim of shooting down Iranian unmanned drone in the besieged waterways of the strait of Hormuz but was immediately denied by Iranians who denounced the claim as Washington’s “delusions”, has promised to coordinate a response with London. However, the United Kingdom torn apart by the far-from-settled Brexit issues have assured that it has no military options on the card but would vigorously pursue diplomacy to guarantee what it called the freedom of navigation in international waters, especially in the strategic strait of Hormuz.

So far, the United States is less disposed to fight war in the region. After all, Trump shied away from the regime-change fixations of his predecessor in Syria and had campaigned during his run for Presidency to bring back U.S troops in the region. But Israel, Saudi Arabia always spotting a chance to take on their irritant neighbour, may urge Trump on and Trump, a doyen in the “art of deal” might take a chance to make a big deal by playing to the gallery, only that everyone else would be terribly bruised in a war with Tehran.

Iran, despite muscular response to provocations so far, would certainly not want a war but would certainly not be shy to fight one, if imposed, like when the Iraqi leadership did in 1980 and thought, it would be a walkover. With America’s maximum pressure, “almost resulting in Tehran’s maximum intransigence,” with no prospects for capitulation, reason can begin to prevail that war in the Gulf will not produce a winner.

President Trump can take some heat off the Iranians by moderating his sanctions regime and allowing room to negotiate his concerns about the nuclear deal. But such intrusive demands as outlined by his Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo which included complete cessation of enrichment, withdrawing all forces under Iranian command in Syria, ending support for resistant groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine or even limiting Iran’s missile programme are likely red lines that Tehran would certainly scoff at.

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