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There is still room for diplomacy to avert war in the Arabian Gulf

Jul 23,2019 - Last updated at Jul 23,2019

The security situation in the Arabian Gulf is spiralling out of control following Iran’s seizure on Friday of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, ordering it to change course into Iranian waters and impounding it at Bandar Abbas Port. Tehran’s tit-for-tat action was based on a lame excuse that the ship had violated maritime rules. The abduction of the tanker came two weeks after the British navy seized an Iranian oil tanker off the waters of Gibraltar, apparently at the request of the US, for violating sanctions against Syria. Tehran denied the allegations and called on London to free the ship immediately. That is yet to happen.

These incidents follow a series of events in the Arabian Gulf that have pushed tensions between the US and Iran to unprecedented levels. But they also put the British government in a tricky position. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May can ill afford to escalate the situation, embarrassing as it is, when she is preparing to hand over the reins of power to a new leader. The first order of business for the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, will be to defuse the crisis. The British government has received moral support from its European allies, who underscored the need to de-escalate and protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf. But it is unlikely that its EU partners will go any further than that — for now.

Enforcing sanctions and freezing Iranian assets in Britain will likely be seen as delivering a fatal blow to the already teetering 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, the JCPOA. That agreement has been in trouble since President Donald Trump abandoned it more than a year ago and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Tehran. The EU has vowed to preserve the deal but failed to find ways to ease sanctions. In return, Iran has taken steps to violate segments of the agreement, primarily raising the level of uranium enrichment.

Meanwhile, the US is beefing up its military presence in the Gulf, all while Washington and Tehran insist that they are not seeking military confrontation. But the crisis has reached a stage where one more incident, intentional or not, may bring one about. The stakes are high for Gulf countries and international players alike.

One country in particular that would like to see military action against Iran take place is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been calling on the US and the West to step up action against Tehran. A mysterious drone attack on a pro-Iranian militia base north of Baghdad on Friday appears to have targeted Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missile storage facilities. The US was quick to issue a statement saying that coalition forces were not involved in the attack, raising questions about the identity of the attacker. Israel has carried numerous strikes against Iranian bases in Syria over the past years.

So far, the US had repeated that it was not seeking regime change in Iran and that it was open to unconditional negotiations with Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani said last week that his country was open for dialogue provided that Washington lifted the biting sanctions on his country. And also last week Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared to praise President Trump’s decision not to retaliate for the downing of a US drone by Iran last month. 

While in New York, Zarif reportedly had said that Tehran was willing to take “modest steps” in return for simultaneous lifting of sanctions. The US did not respond to his offer. But there were reports that Zarif did meet with US Senator Rand Paul who was allowed by the White House to enter into talks with the Iranian diplomat.

The Gulf crisis is quickly reaching a point of no return. Whether Britain and Iran will seek to de-escalate by agreeing to release each others’ tankers is the most pressing issue now. Else both countries will find themselves pushed into a corner. What could complicate issues is the US proposal to form a naval coalition to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Gulf. The likeliness of a maritime showdown between the IRGC and coalition ships will rise dramatically.

The US decision to pull out of the nuclear deal has polarised the West and its regional allies. Sanctions are hurting Iran and are pushing the radical IRGC to take matters into its own hands. The deal itself appears to be on the brink of collapse. And while tensions in the Gulf are rising there is still room for diplomatic intervention, but both sides must relent and find common grounds. This cannot happen without the US clarifying its immediate goals and what it hopes to achieve in the short-term.

Absence of a diplomatic breakthrough will push the region into a dark tunnel, one that could lead to an eruption of all-out hostilities. Meanwhile, Britain finds itself stuck in the eye of an unpredictable storm. 

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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