It could be the calm before the storm. Or it could be that there is a possibility for resolving the Iranian crisis at both the Iranian-US and the Iranian-Arab levels thanks to the mediating efforts of the country best poised for this task, namely Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
In either case, the crisis is still charged with escalatory potential, mostly coming from Iran.
This takes several forms, one being Tehran’s gradual renunciation of its commitments under the nuclear agreement it signed with the P5+1, especially as concerns its uranium enrichment programme.
It is a flexible instrument aimed at the long term, but the rates with which it is used can be gauged in accordance with pressures from the international community.
The second is selective direct attacks in the Gulf against oil tankers in order to obstruct navigation and to throw the oil market into a frenzy. Basically,
Iran is trying to assert direct control over supply and price fluctuations in the international oil market.
Thirdly, it is deftly using the “Houthi card” in order to obstruct the Yemen peace process in the framework of international resolutions (Security Council Resolution 2216) and the Stockholm agreement calling for Houthi withdrawal from the ports of Hodeida, Ras Isa and Saleef, on the one hand, and to pressure Saudi Arabia by using missiles to strike the Abha civilian airport (three times, killing and wounding civilians) and drones to strike oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia, on the other.
The fourth potentially escalatory instrument is to be found in its political/diplomatic drive which claims to want to avoid war and has even offered to sign a non-aggression pact with Arab Gulf states, while simultaneously proclaiming readiness to attack US forces which, in practice, means attacking Arab interests in the Gulf.
Fifthly, it has consolidated its alliances with terrorist organisations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and deployed its Revolutionary Guard forces in these countries.
Given all these Iranian actions along extensive fronts, the options appear reduced to two: do nothing or make war. It is a choice between two very bitter pills.
On the one hand, it is impossible to accept the continuation of the current situation in which Iran remains free to wreak strategic and economic havoc and, indeed, to possibly provoke an Iranian-Israeli war by crossing red lines that would put Tehran closer to a nuclear weapon, which neither the US nor Israel can accept.
But war is not acceptable either, unless Iran forces it on the world by aggression. War would come at a time when the entire region is struggling to emerge from the brutal consequences of the post-Arab Spring phase, with accompanying threats to the Arab nation state, civil wars and the untold tragedies.
In addition, countries in this region have already embarked on extensive reform programmes and these require regional stability as an essential precondition for attracting domestic and international investment.
The upshot is that we have to look for other ways to compel Iran to alter its behaviour, to accept a broader vision for regional security and to cease its various forms of aggression.
The first step towards confronting Iran directly or indirectly was the creation of the quartet committee made up of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK and the US which met 23 June in London.
While the statement this committee issued condemned the attacks undertaken by Iran directly, or via the Houthis, and urged “diplomatic solutions to de-escalate tensions”, it simultaneously sent Iran the message saying that the balance of forces is not on its side.
It is important to note, here, that Britain joined this committee at a time when it is preoccupied with its domestic crisis connected with Brexit. Its presence in the committee alongside the US, in keeping with many historic precedents, has an important deterrent effect.
The second step was the US ratcheting up of economic sanctions against Iran which also entailed lifting the waivers that had been in place for a number of countries, which were therefore forced to choose between dealing with Iran or dealing with the US.
The result was a huge decrease in Iran’s oil export capacities which, according to some reports, have plummeted to 400,000 barrels which, moreover, have to be smuggled out of the country.
Iran is trying to compensate with petrochemical exports. As these are easy to monitor, the power to let them pass or to restrict them gives the quartet committee considerable leverage.
The third possible step which could be called into play has been used once before at the time when Western countries were pressuring Iran to sign the nuclear accord.
It involved using cyberattacks to undermine the Iranian nuclear programme. If, after all this, Iran persists and continues to play the uranium enrichment card to bring it closer to nuclear weapons capacity, then a fourth step could be called into play to put paid to this gambit: a strike aimed at critical points in the Iranian nuclear programme.
The foregoing package of options is flexible and adaptable to changes in Iranian behaviour. It can also complement mediating efforts related to the Iranian nuclear programme and to its regional policies.
If Iran still remains undeterred there are further options available before reaching the point of no return. They entail clipping Iranian wings in the region: in Yemen by preventing the Houthis from access to Red Sea ports and in Syria where Iranian bases are used by the Revolutionary Guard and by Hizbullah forces.
It is important at this stage to make it clear to the Iranian people, who are bound to Arab countries by geographic proximity, religion and history, that the deterioration in Arab-Iranian relations is the product of the belligerent behaviour of the Iranian regime since the Iranian revolution four decades ago.
That was when the mullahs set into motion a string of wars against Arab countries either directly or through militias and terrorist groups that serve as their proxies.
There is no doubt that, if they go down this path, the Arab countries in the Gulf would be acting in self-defence as they mobilise their sovereign capacities, their influential natural resources, their financial reserves that are essential to the global economic and financial order, and their regional relations with brotherly Arab nations and other friendly governments with which they once shared the experience of liberating Kuwait and with which they are currently working to help Iraq rehabilitate its sovereign powers.
The history of this region testifies to the fact that the Arab Gulf countries have withstood gruelling and precarious moments at the hands of forces acting beneath diverse flags and banners.
But today, no power will succeed in using Islam against the very countries that are home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and that have the solid leaderships and powers to defend their people, land and resources while, at the same time, they extend their hands in peace to those who are willing and ready to accept that.
*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 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: What to do with Iran