This week tensions in the Gulf ratcheted up as the US and UK announced on consecutive days independent plans to launch maritime protection missions.
The US is planning a conference in Bahrain later this year to discuss launching a maritime coalition “to secure freedom of navigation” in the waters around the Gulf, a crucial international trade passage.
According to Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, 65 countries will attend the proposed meeting.
The announcement was made less than 24 hours after the US called on its maritime partners to be vigilant for any potential development in the Gulf region.
Within hours UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced his country was seeking a European maritime coalition to guard Gulf shipping.
Hunt said the coalition he is calling for is not designed to accentuate pressure on Iran but was about avoiding tankers becoming caught in the crosshairs.
The call for maritime coalitions around the Gulf comes after a US decision to send troops to its closest Arab Gulf ally Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this week the US began re-establishing a military base in Saudi Arabia as hundreds of US troops and military equipment were moved to Prince Sultan Air Base.
On Friday, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf. The incident was the third episode in the UK-Iran quarrel that started on 4 July when the UK detained an Iranian tanker that was allegedly heading to Syria to deliver oil in violation of EU sanctions.
Iran later tried to block a BP-owned tanker in the Strait of Hormuz before being warned off by a UK Royal Navy escort.
On Tuesday Hussein Khanzadi, the head of Iran’s navy, said Tehran automatically observes all US ships in the Gulf region closely, and was planning joint naval exercises with allied countries in March next year.
“This is political rather than military tension. Iran feels the US is placing it under a great deal of pressure and wants to show it can act to annoy the US and its allies,” said an Arab Gulf source.
In recent days, he added, pro-Iranian political forces have initiated a round of demonstrations in Iraq “in a demonstration of Iran’s regional influence”.
The source also pointed out that Iran’s closest and strongest ally, Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah, made a TV appearance last week to underline Hizbullah’s solidarity with Tehran and warn of regional ramifications should the US act against Iran.
“Clearly there is a lot of tension and no sign of de-escalation around the corner,” commented a Cairo-based European diplomat. “Not that I am saying we are going to see a war. Obviously nobody wants that.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his UK opposite number Hunt have both said they want to avoid any military confrontation with Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spoke to the newly elected British premier Boris Johnson on Tuesday saying that Tehran is not seeking a confrontation in the Gulf.
According to the European diplomat, it is in the interest of neither the US nor the UK to start a military confrontation with Iran. Nor is it in the interest of Iran to provoke one.
What is at stake now, he says, is who controls the crucial trade routes of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab. “Iran will resist but it looks inevitable that these maritime coalitions will be formed,” he said.
An informed Egyptian official acknowledged that there is serious will on the part of both the US and UK to forge ahead with their coalitions.
“We are following things closely. We have strategic interests, especially in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab. We are carefully examining the situation,” he said.
Egypt has had a maritime presence near Bab Al-Mandab since the beginning of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Egypt’s close Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates is also keenly monitoring developments in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, maritime routes that are central to its trade and other strategic interests.
According to the Arab Gulf source, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would willingly participate in a US-led scheme to monitor navigation in the Gulf and Red Sea.
On Tuesday both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh issued statements calling for the protection of free navigation in the Gulf.
Egypt has shown less willingness to join any possible maritime coalition despite the fact that it will probably be present at the Bahrain meeting, “when and if it takes place”, according to the Egyptian official.
Egypt, he added, while trying to observe the requirements of its close alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both of which are in open confrontation with Iran, has been keen to disassociate itself from anti-Iranian schemes and avoid any military involvement.
Earlier this year Cairo halted its participation in a US-led regional coalition that, from the Egyptian point of view, appeared designed to serve an anti-Iran political agenda, and perhaps give impetus to the militarisation of the conflict.
On and off the record, Egyptian officials have repeatedly advocated dialogue over confrontation.
“We were hoping for a de-escalation but it looks as if tensions will continue despite the attempts of regional and international capitals to defuse the situation,” the Egyptian official said.
He added that France and Oman, together with other mediators, are trying to lay the basis for a deal between Tehran and Washington that will draw a line under the tensions that erupted when US President Donald Trump opted last year to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed on 14 July 2015 by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany.
The JCPOA, says the European diplomat, was working very well. The US withdrew, he added, because of Trump’s “desire to discredit everything done by his predecessor” Barack Obama, and to appease to the extreme right groups that had supported his election with the backing of anti-Iranian regional players.
The EU has, meanwhile, been signalling its continued commitment to the JCPOA. Last week Frederica Mogherini, the top EU foreign affairs and security official, said the EU is not willing to turn its back on the JCPOA and does not consider Iran in any major violation of the deal.
Last month Iran increased its uranium enrichment to slightly beyond the level specified in the 2015 deal.
Mogherini also said the EU might be willing to include Iranian oil sales in the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), the mechanism the EU uses to continue doing business with Iran.
In a paper published this week, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that “the [continued] escalation [with Iran] poses three distinct threats: the unravelling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which constrained Iran’s nuclear programme; the possibility of a direct military engagement between Iran and the US, by design or miscalculation; and broader regional spillover across a series of flashpoints.”
An emergency meeting is scheduled on Sunday at the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency to discuss Iran. The meeting is held at the proposal of Britain, France and Germany. Iran announced that it will take part in the meeting in pursuit of dialogue over confrontation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran crisis deepens