Attacks against Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf last week may mark a new chapter in the regional and international crisis that began with Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and the re-imposition of its boycott and economic sanctions against Tehran.
Judging by Iranian reactions to the new reality, we could summarise its strategy as follows.
Firstly, if the confrontation between Iran and the United States forces a halt to Iranian oil exports then Iran will make sure that other parties cannot export their oil either.
On top of this, it will put pressure on the Straits of Hormuz of the sort that can precipitate an international economic crisis.
Also, as Tehran watches Washington notch up its military might in the vicinity of Iranian shores, it knows that while the US is remote, the US’ friends are within reach and can pay a price for that friendship.
Secondly, Iran has instruments at its disposal that it has created and strengthened over recent decades. Just as Iran used Hizbullah to turn the balances of forces in the Syrian crisis in favour of the Syrian regime, even if that led to the destruction of Syria, in the current crisis it has the Houthis, who are trying to take over Yemen.
Iran has turned the Houthis into the thorn in the southern flank of Saudi Arabia and a direct threat to Saudi territory and petroleum resources.
Thirdly, Tehran feels it must destroy the Arab-American friendship and alliance in order to avert a major shift in military balances of power in the region.
Towards this end it will use military pressure (attacks against Abha airport, the port of Fujairah, Saudi oil pumping stations and oil tankers) and, simultaneously, diplomatic overtures such as its invitation to Arab Gulf countries to sign non-aggression treaties, its call for a regional security conference and its declaration of its readiness to partner in the protection of Gulf oil.
This Iranian strategy implicitly responds to prevalent views among US and Israeli analysts and intelligence officials which hold that the crux of the crisis with Iran has to do with Iranian nuclear and missile capacities.
But abbreviating the issue this way contextualises it in the framework of the global balance of nuclear powers, or in the same basket as India, Pakistan and Israel with respect to violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if Iran claims it is subjected “unfair” pressures.
Such contextualisations lend themselves to the impression that Israel is the main motive behind Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. In fact, this suits Iran’s more fundamental goal, namely to dominate the Gulf region where the world’s largest petroleum reserves are found.
Israel, here, is just a means to serve Iranian imperialistic ends in the region. Iran’s announcement that it would resume its nuclear programme in 60 days if it was not allowed to export 1.5 million barrels of oil is proof that its nuclear as well as military and strategic capacities have not been affected by the nuclear agreement.
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran has always posed an imminent threat to security in the Gulf region. It capitalises on a number of geopolitical and geo-strategic assets such as the country’s territorial size, large population, geographical location along the shores of the Gulf and Indian Ocean and its vast oil and gas resources.
Such factors along with a deeply rooted sense of historical imperial mission have combined to generate aggressive expansionist tendencies. Its “Islamic Revolution” added a zeal and fanaticism to this sense of mission which has become an identifying feature of that state as embodied in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a terrorist organisation created in order to infiltrate and control neighbouring countries.
This has been manifested in Iranian involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and many countries in Gulf and elsewhere in the Islamic world, developing along the way the capacities it needs to handle diverse operational theatres.
For Tehran, developing nuclear weapons capacity was a means to enhance its international standing. It gained considerably from sitting on the other side of the table with the world’s great powers in the framework of the P5+1 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, not just because of the money this released but also because it could be a partner in the management of the regional crisis that it helped cause to begin with.
Therefore, when Donald Trump withdrew the US stamp of approval on the nuclear accord and re-imposed sanctions, Iran set into motion what it had been planning all along.
Evidence of this is to be found in the military and financial mobilisation campaigns undertaken by Hizbullah and the Houthis during Ramadan.
On 16 May, the Future Centre for Advanced Research and Studies published an assessment with the title, “Systematic plunder: How the Houthi militias exploit Ramadan to fund the war”.
According to this assessment, the Houthi militias doubled the zakah, or alms tax, levied from Yemeni citizens and they instructed charities to allocate 30 per cent of their income to the “war effort”.
Houthi authorities also raised fuel prices in the areas they control by 40 per cent and added a surplus fee to goods coming from ports and destinations outside of Sanaa. “At the same time, the Houthis are seizing relief supplies destined to other areas in Yemen,” the UAE-based think tank wrote.
The Houthi militias are preparing for war. They are violating the Hodeida agreement and staging direct attacks on oil facilities, tankers and ports.
They are using Iranian missiles and other Iranian-made weapons to do this after receiving training from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hizbullah.
The effort to counter this must subscribe to the type of strategic thinking that rejects the perpetuation of the status quo. Iran probably wants to make the Gulf countries feel hostage to their dealings with the US.
It will have the Houthis increase their use of Iranian tactical weapons and, perhaps, it will intensify the use of its relations with terrorist organisations.
Nor should we rule out the possibility of further Iranian attempts to threaten the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandeb using naval vessels or mines, like before.
Since the perpetuation of the status quo is unacceptable, alternatives must be found. In the three Mecca summits that were held recently, participants made it clear that nobody wants another war in this region that has already experienced so much warfare in this decade.
They also said that relations between the Gulf countries and Iran must be based in the principles of good neighbourliness. Iran is not applying any of these principles.
Yet, the balances of military forces are not in favour of Iran. Nor are the balance of economic forces. Essentially, Iran is fatigued by decades of war, poor government and a multiplicity of ethnicities and denominations subjected to a Persian hegemony ruling in the name of religion.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: What to do about Iran