US-Iran tensions: Conflict vs dialogue

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 15 May 2019

Tensions between Iran and the US appear to have spiked. Now officials are talking down the possibility of conflict

Federica Mogherini and Mohammad Javad Zarif
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, from left, wait for the start of prior to a bilateral meeting as part of the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, Friday, July 6, 2018 (Photo: AP)

After over a week of increased signs of tension between the US and Iran, on Tuesday evening Iranian Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “there is not going to be war with the US.”

The statement appeared on the official website of the most influential Iranian leaders.

“This face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war. Neither we nor they [the US] seek war. They know it will not be in their interest,” said Khamenei.

In an almost parallel statement US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US is not seeking war with Iran.

Pompeo was speaking in Russia, a close Iranian ally, where he held talks with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and was scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Washington-based Arab diplomat had meanwhile said this might be the beginning of de-escalation but it is too early to tell given the multiple regional and international players and their competing interests.

On Monday, this same source said it was “becoming increasingly hard to dismiss manifestations of growing military tension between Iran and the US in the Middle East but we hope things will divert from this path.”

The diplomat added that no one was talking about a full-fledged war but “possibly attacks and counter attacks” on Iranian targets and US interests in the region.

The diplomat was speaking before Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that terrorist drones had attacked two pumping stations on its East-West pipeline.

Saudi Arabia openly accused Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen, at war with a Saudi-led military coalition for over four years, of responsibility for the attacks.

According to the Washington-based diplomat, “this is not something to be taken lightly; it is a serious matter that could have disturbing repercussions for the stability of the Middle East, given the number of countries in the region where both the US and Iran have interests and the significance of the region for the international oil trade.”

On Monday senior EU diplomats who had met with Pompeo in Brussels had warned against a series of possible scenarios.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, “we are very worried about a conflict; about the risks of a conflict,” while German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said EU member states had told Pompeo that “we don’t want to come to a military conflict.”

According to the US State Department, Pompeo was in Brussels to share with EU and NATO members what Washington qualifies as “increasing Iranian threats”.

Also in Brussels, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said “Iran should try talks instead of threats.” He added that Iranian leaders “have chosen poorly by focusing on threats”.

Tensions between Iran and the US have been ramping up since the first days of US President Donald Trump’s election.

Trump openly condemned the nuclear deal signed with Iran by his predecessor Barack Obama, five leading European countries and the EU, under which Iran agreed to constrain its nuclear programme in return for a de-escalation of political and economic sanctions.

Despite EU appeals Trump pulled out of the deal. The move led to growing trans-Atlantic tensions but was well received by US allies in the Middle East, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

An informed Arab Gulf official based in Abu Dhabi said increased US pressure on Iran met with approval in leading GCC capitals. “We think that the Obama approach towards the region, especially when it came to Iran, was wrong. We are happy we are cooperating with the US to put the Iranians in their place,” he said.

Earlier this week the UAE accused Iran of being behind the attacks on two Saudi-owned oil carriers near the port of Fujairah, off the Strait of Hormuz.

A fifth of the world’s oil passes through the strait and Iranian officials, speaking off record, had warned Tehran would close the maritime route if it was attacked.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack on the ships and has demanded an international investigation.

Regional foreign diplomats are following developments on the edge of their seats. They agree it is difficult to see how an Iranian-American conflict would start and then develop.

Few expect Iran to initiate an escalation, or for the US to become directly involved. They worry, though, that in the event of Iran being provoked to retaliate it might act recklessly against US targets, including US soldiers, in the Middle East, after which all hell could break loose.

On Monday, in Washington, Trump said it would be “a big mistake” for Iran to try and do anything against the US. The US has already deployed an aircraft carrier and jet fighters to the region.

Regional and European diplomats say there is a sense of high military alert in several Arab countries, particularly those at the forefront of the confrontation with Iran, as well as in Israel and among Washington’s closest Arab allies who might have to step in with forces if things get out of hand.

Turkey and Russia are also being very vigilant and both have sent messages to Washington that they want to remain outside any conflict.

Earlier in the week a Middle East-based European diplomat had expressed concern that Syria might be the scene of “contentious US/Israel Iran/Hizbullah confrontations if things were to take a military turn”.

“We have no reason to think that things will not get out of hand if a conflict starts. We are working to start a new dialogue between Washington and Tehran but we are not sure in which direction things will go – war or dialogue,” the European diplomat said.

While nobody is underestimating the ability of Washington and its regional allies to harm Iran, equally nobody should underestimate the havoc that could be wreaked by Tehran and its associated militias across the region, not only in the Middle East but in Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa, including East Africa and areas bordering the Bab Al-Mandab Strait.

Speaking to local media, Iranian officials said Tehran would retaliate if attacked, though the line they pushed was one of “resistance” rather than retaliation.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has openly warned that Tehran will resume uranium enrichment beyond the levels agreed in the 2015 if the US does not stop its pressure.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that the EU is doing all it can to support the 2015 nuclear deal.

A Cairo-based European diplomat says concern is growing in EU capitals that Trump is undermining European efforts to consolidate the deal despite Washington’s withdrawal.

According to one, “things do look really bad and the Iranians seem to be seriously thinking of acting on their threats.”

On Tuesday morning, in Cairo, an Egyptian official said there are “worrying signs that cannot be dismissed”. Later in the day, he acknowledged that the statements of Khamenei and Pompeo may signal a de-escalation.

The Egyptian official acknowledged the wish to “put serious pressure on Iran is not exclusively American” and argued this meant region-wide possible Iranian targets for retaliation.

He declined questions on possible Egyptian military involvement to defend Arab Gulf states if directly attacked and excluded any scenarios involving traditional warfare.

“We are not talking about an Iraq war scenario. We are in a very different situation today,” he said.

In 1991 Egypt sent troops to help defend Arab Gulf countries during the US-led war to liberate Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq. Earlier, Egypt and other Arab states, including Kuwait, sided with Iraq in its eight-year long war with Iran.

Egypt and Iran have not had full diplomatic relations since Tehran severed diplomatic relations with Cairo in 1979 after president Anwar Al-Sadat gave refuge to the last shah, ousted by the Iranian Revolution.

Cairo and Iran have had ups and downs in their relations but by and large maintained a policy of non-confrontation throughout the past four decades. In the 1990s they worked jointly in the UN on an initiative to free the Middle East from all weapons of mass destruction.

Today, according to the Egyptian official, Cairo is hoping that confrontation can be averted to avoid “the repercussions of a long proxy war on multiple regional fronts”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Conflict vs dialogue 

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