The Tangled Mess in the Persian Gulf Echoes 1914

USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf (U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

SHOW 5 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. I agree with Mr Plitnick about the case here in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Too many actors with potential capabilities to initiate events with incalculable consequences. But there are two, which at the end resume in one, in my mind with this capability. Israel and the U.S. I said two in one… because Israel will only be the triggering element, Israelians count on U.S. to do the job, they will put for sure logistic intelligentsia particularly about languages spoken in the region, and perhaps some radar guidance. However, the central issue here is the U.S. itself. Why?

    The big difference between 1914 and 2019 is that today there’s only one country which has not suffered real war inside its borders, and when I’m referring to real war I’m referring to flattened cities, empty country side and piles and piles of rubble, and this country is US of A. Please, forget about Pearl Harbor or about 9/11. And this is the only reason why it’s only the U.S. that can start that kind of disaster again. U.S. has spread death with execrable and reckless carpet bombing already killing millions of civilians, always the others, aliens civilians. Notice that those civilians more they were coloured, more they are invisible to the U.S. Army or to U.S. population. U.S. has never experienced these atrocities among their own civilians. Europe, Russia, Iran, China have an utterly different point of view about war in comparison with the U.S. John Bolton may well keep preaching in his desert… And Senator Lindsey Graham is maybe entering dementia…

  2. The only language the Ayatollahs understand, is the language they use on the secular non-violent nation of Iran. They are killing hundred Iranians everyday, and they bully Iranians with an ugly inhumane language. But commentators are only interested to talk about US policy. They do not criticise the Ayatollahs’ behaviour. They just want to make the US behaviour look bad. As I keep saying, hit the US administration, but hit the Ayatollahs as well. Be fair.

  3. I do not see what Iran has to gain by making concessions at this point. They have Trump exactly where they want him, politically unable to carry through on his threats of military force because of Iran’s ability to shut down the export of oil from the Middle East and because the U.S. populace is war-weary and in an election season. Why retreat from that position of strength to a “sanctions-lite” position of acquiescence?

  4. Today’s Iran is much different than Iran in 1914 and comparing the 2 eras not only doesn’t make sense but it’s totally inaccurate from the historical perspective. The useless and corrupt Qajar dynasty was in its death bed in 1914 and Iran was also exiting its worst suffering of all times from the greatest famine imposed by the great imperialist EVILS of the so called Great Britain during 1908-1911. According to a few estimates Iran had lost about half of its population or 8-10 million people due the imposed famine.
    Iranians can and probably will cause a nervous breakdown for Trump’s administration and specifically for his Secretary of State “Father Pompeo”. Probability of Iran negotiating with the US under duress is nil and in fact Iran should up the ante by filing a declaration at the UN demanding Bahrain as part of its historical sovereignty. The claim for Bahrain will also put the presence of the US military base in Bahrain under a cloud of questions!

  5. ALI MOSTOFI,

    As an advocate of nonviolence, i.e., Mossadegh’s way, every time I see your (and other monarchist so-called “opposition”) claim to be “non-violent,” while your “dear leader” Reza Pahlavi is begging Israel, S. Arabia, and of course Trump to deepen the sanctions and attack Iran (i.e., “The only language the Ayatollahs understand, is the language of force”), my only reaction is to laugh.

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