by Mitchell Plitnick
The current situation in the Persian Gulf is all too similar to Europe in 1914, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). In “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” the ICG makes the case that the situation in the Persian Gulf has gotten so complicated and volatile that, as ICG’s Iran Project Director, Ali Vaez. put it, “Just as in Europe in 1914, a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.”
The comparison to 1914 is obviously chilling, but the sheer number of actors connected to the U.S.-Iran standoff and the unmanageable array of potential trigger points in the region make it apt. Tightening U.S. sanctions, as part of the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign,” and the response they force from Iran means steadily rising tensions and raises the possibility that at some point, Iran could take a step to which the U.S. or Israel feels it must respond militarily.
Whether it is Israeli strikes in Syria, on the Lebanese border and—as we recently learned—Iraq, against Iranian and Hezbollah targets; the ongoing clash between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in Yemen; the proximity of Iranian forces to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and northern Syria; and, of course, the standoff in the Persian Gulf itself, there are simply too many ways something can go wrong.
Reports this week of a plan, spearheaded by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), to embolden Israel to strike Iran by guaranteeing U.S. support should Iran launch a full-scale response to an attack represent another way in which the situation is escalating.
Reasonable minds in the United States have every reason to avoid engaging with Iran. Admiral William McRaven (Ret.), who spoke along with Vaez, ICG president Rob Malley, and ICG senior analyst Elizabeth Dickinson, told a group of journalists and activists that “Anyone who believes that a strike will somehow cower [the Iranians] is just mistaken. A country like Iran is proud, it has thousands of years of pride as a nation. When you strike them, they will strike back, they will not just roll over. So we have to be very careful about miscalculations.”
Responding to uber-hawkish Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who said back in May that an attack on Iran would be quick and result in a decisive victory for the United States, McRaven said, “nothing is ever quick and easy.”
Malley relayed an idea from the report to defuse the immediate pressure. “There is a potential way out that both the U.S. and Iran could describe as win. Iran would enter an agreement to stop provocative actions in the Gulf. The United States would relieve some oil sanctions, which is Iran’s primary concern. And then talks [for a more lasting reduction of tensions] could resume. The U.S. could then say that it did not have to go back to JCPOA, but Iran is back at the table. Iran can say that because they held firm, they got relaxation of oil sanctions. This requires both sides to compromise, which neither side has shown a disposition to do, but given the possibility of war they might be willing.”
The report describes the proposal as the parties reverting to “an enhanced version of the pre-May 2019 status quo, with a commitment to resume broader negotiations in a format to be determined. Success would require the U.S. to moderate its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran in exchange for equally limited Iranian concessions.”
To its credit, the ICG acknowledges that such a compromise would be a tough sell for both the U.S. and Iran. Many in Washington would certainly be reluctant to ease up on the “maximum pressure” strategy before it has won significant, lasting concessions from Iran. “By the same token, Iran might be only mildly interested in a deal that would allow it to increase its oil exports somewhat but not—due to banking sanctions—to repatriate the funds it would receive in exchange,” the ICG report says. “The Iranians are also unsure if Trump could wear down resistance to a tactical détente with Iran within his administration; and even if he could, whether a deal with him would last.”
ICG Gulf expert Beth Dickinson explained that it is a mistake to think of the Gulf states as one unified bloc. While there was a basic unity, and the various countries understand the need to take other states’ interests into consideration, their interests have diverged. She pointed out that the smaller Gulf states are on the front lines and would be the first to be affected by a clash. In many ways, she said, the smaller states have a more acute understanding of the risks as a result.
“Saudi Arabia also understands risks of hot war,” she added. “But [ongoing regional] tensions have made its position on regional conflicts more hawkish, so they are more concerned about Iranian influence in places like Yemen and Iraq.”
Although the United Arab Emirates is usually lumped into the Iran hawk camp, and they do often complain about Iran’s role in the region, they are, like other Gulf states, sensitive to being on the front lines and are very “interest-driven in finding an off ramp out of the tensions,” Dickinson said. The UAE sees Iran as a definite threat, but they want to defuse the situation.
Indeed, just this week, the UAE says they held talks with Iran, a very unusual occurrence these days. The Emiratis say the meeting was about routine maritime issues, but Dickinson stated that it was notable that the UAE even acknowledged that it happened. In her view, recent UAE actions are designed to send a message that they are completely uninterested in being part of a confrontation. She also considered it indicative that they had been reluctant to assign blame for recent attacks in the Gulf.
Dickinson also expressed concern that Saudi positions on regional conflicts have grown firmer. She noted that they were directly linking Houthi attacks to Iran more frequently, and explicitly saying that the Houthis are directed by Iran, something that is familiar to those in the U.S. but has been less common as a Saudi talking point. This, Dickinson said, is a signal of a dangerous course where the conflict in Yemen would “be sucked into broader tensions with Iran.”
Malley agreed with Dickinson’s analysis and added that he felt that the UAE was also concerned about their close association with the Saudis in the minds of those in the United States, and especially on Capitol Hill, where the image of Saudi Arabia has taken some severe hits in recent years. He added that the UAE is “also feeling some whiplash, from the Bush administration policies to Obama to Trump. I think they are trying to hedge their bets or at least have their own foreign policy that could survive the dramatic zigzags of U.S. policy toward Iran and I think this leads to a more centrist policy. But they don’t want to do anything that makes it seems like they are anything but loyal to the United States.”
The ICG report states in its conclusion that, “War is far from inevitable, not least because neither side wants it. But the absence of a meaningful channel between the U.S. and Iran, the two sides’ determination not to back down, and the multiplicity of potential flashpoints means that a clash—whether born of miscalculation or design—cannot be ruled out. Should it occur, it would be difficult to contain in duration or scope. It could also cause local conflicts to mutate and metastasize, dimming prospects for their resolution.”
The report’s recommendation to temper tensions would be welcome, but as ICG itself points out, its prospects for success are limited. Ultimately, there are few alternatives to either a conflict or the United States agreeing to either re-enter the JCPOA or forge a new agreement—which would, of necessity, be another example of Trump’s restoring the status quo ante and claiming to have achieved something. Third party mediation would be welcome, but with the United Kingdom’s position unclear with their new prime minister, and both the UK and EU struggling to deal with the economic fallout of Brexit, it is hard to see who could serve as a realistic broker for talks.
So the ICG aimed low, hoping to merely resolve the immediate crisis despite recognizing that the situation is so fraught that even that modest goal is difficult to achieve. With the United States now having pointlessly raised the stakes by imposing sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, it will be still more difficult.