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International Crisis Group

Taking the US and Iran off collision course

The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group has moved into position near Iran [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 May, 2019

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Comment: A dangerous escalation between the US and Iran is a distinct possibility. But whether deliberate or a miscalculation, there's still time to avert it, write the International Crisis Group.
A series of escalations in both word and deed have raised fears of US-Iranian military confrontation, either direct or by proxy. It is urgent that cooler heads prevail - in European capitals as in Tehran and Washington - to head off the threat of a disastrous war.

For the past year, relations between the US and Iran have brought to mind a slow-motion train wreck. Of late, the pace has dangerously accelerated, and tensions could soon lead to a catastrophic collision. A crash is not inevitable, but it could well occur - deliberately or as a product of miscalculation - unless both parties and outside actors take urgent steps to slow way down or switch to another track.

On 12 May, four oil tankers off the coast of Fujaira, a port in the United Arab Emirates on the Gulf of Oman, were hit by apparent sabotage. Two days later, drones attacked two oil pumping stations along the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia between the capital Riyadh and the port city of Yanbu.

These two separate events may or may not be linked, may or may not involve Iran, and may or may not provoke a response. But, coming against a backdrop of significant escalation between Washington and Tehran, they represent ominous warning signs.

In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has doubled down on its efforts to strangle Iran's economy. Not content with having unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, it is now pushing to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero. It has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation.

It has also started to flex its military muscle by deploying warships, bomber jets and missile defence batteries to the Middle East to counter unspecified "Iranian threats".

Tehran has not remained passive. It has labelled US forces in the region as terrorists; downgraded its compliance with the nuclear deal, warning of further steps unless the deal's remaining parties deliver tangible economic benefits; threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for the global oil and gas trade; and pledged to retaliate against any attack upon its assets or interests.

Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order

Without offering proof, US officials claim that Iran has also given licence to its regional proxies to target US interests, suggesting that such an attack could occur in Iraq or one of the Gulf monarchies allied to Washington. In a worrying move, on 15 May it ordered the departure of non-essential US personnel from Iraq.

Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

All this ratcheting-up of tension was entirely predictable, and most of it is entirely provoked by the US. With Iran  increasingly having less to lose as a result of US sanctions, which are eating away at its already weak economy, it was virtually bound to become less risk-averse in the nuclear realm and more aggressive in the region.

For months now, the more hardline elements of the Islamic Republic have been urging the leadership to impose a cost on the US in order to deter it from stepping up sanctions and to show that, if the US could hurt Iran, so too could Tehran wound Washington.

Perhaps these actions are a prelude to negotiations: The US is exerting "maximum pressure", it says, to bring a more compliant Iran back to the table; in like manner, should Tehran conclude that it has no choice but to reach a new deal with Washington in order to relieve unsustainable economic strain, it will want to enter such talks with a stronger hand.

If these manoeuvres are a diplomatic game, it is a dangerous one: Either side could misinterpret the other's intentions

Resuming its nuclear activities, making its presence felt in the region, and disrupting Saudi or Emirati oil exports could all be ways of enhancing its bargaining power. But if these manoeuvres are a diplomatic game, it is a dangerous one: Either side could misinterpret the other's intentions.

Any Iranian move could easily lead to US and/or Israeli strikes which, in turn, could lead to an Iranian counter-response. Or vice versa. Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

Read more: Sabre-rattling and sabotage off the coast of UAE

In short, whether or not Tehran was directly or indirectly behind the recent attacks (the Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks in Saudi Arabia; the earlier offshore incident has gone unclaimed; Iran has denied any connection to the incidents and called for an investigation). Whether or not Washington is manufacturing accusations to justify a spike in military activity, all the ingredients for an escalation are present. 


Even assuming that neither side seeks war, growing friction at all the flashpoints between the two sides
means that intentions may not suffice to prevent it. The consequences could be calamitous for states and peoples in the immediate region, but also for the international economy, given its high dependence on the free flow of oil from the Gulf.

It is not too late to avert this outcome.

Key to de-escalation will be the ability of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal to give Iran an economic reprieve. In particular, Europe could shed its reluctance to indirectly import Iranian oil in partnership with Russia and China.

If Russia swaps oil with Iran and China continues to import Iranian crude, the transactions would generate credit that the parties could inject into Europe's special purpose financial vehicle (Instex), allowing Iran to engage in trade with these countries without access to the US- dominated global financial system.

A back-channel dialogue eventually may be possible, but for that the US ought to tone down its rhetoric

These countries could also provide Iran with development aid to repair and renew its infrastructure. With Europe demonstrating willingness to go the extra mile, Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal. It also should exhibit restraint on the regional front and refrain from steps - direct or taken through partners - that could provoke its foes.

As for President Donald Trump, he faces a choice.

Everything about his 2016 presidential campaign pointed in the direction of avoiding another costly and unnecessary military entanglement in the Middle East.

So, too, does much about the vows he has made to his constituency since entering office. But everything about his administration's policy toward Iran points in a strikingly different direction: Toward war, by design or mistake.

He says he wants the US and Iran to talk. Yet he should know that the Islamic Republic will not start a dialogue if it feels it has a gun to its head; it will respond to perceived aggression in like manner, and that response could in turn engender an uncontrollable downward spiral.

A back-channel dialogue eventually may be possible, but for that the US ought to tone down its rhetoric and offer the Iranian leadership an off-ramp, for example by signalling its preparedness to put aside its maximalist demands and to find a mutually acceptable compromise.

President Trump might think that time is on his side, as sanctions continue to take their toll on the Iranian economy. But the wait-and-see period may have reached the end of its natural life.

A crisis that he may not want but that some of his advisers may not mind lies just around the corner. It is past time for cooler heads to prevail and for all to move decisively to take the trains off collision course.



ICG is a transnational non-profit, non-governmental organisation that carries out field research on violent conflict and advances policies to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflict.

This article was originally published by our friends at Lobelog.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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