Widening Gulf

An economy in a freefall and a series of missteps are taking Iran and the US towards a collision

By Author  |  Published: 9th Jun 2019  12:00 amUpdated: 8th Jun 2019  9:36 pm

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared since America deployed an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers in the Persian Gulf last month. Last Friday, the US imposed sanctions on the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, Iran’s largest petrochemical company, for supporting the country’s influential Revolutionary Guard Corps and designated the Corps a “foreign terrorist organization,” the first time it has ever done so for a foreign governmental agency.

Tehran hit back by declaring the US a “state sponsor of terrorism” and Washington’s forces in the region “terrorist groups”. The Revolutionary Guard said it doesn’t fear a possible war with the US. “The enemy is not more powerful than before,” said Guard spokesman Gen Ramazan Sharif, while stating that the Guard doesn’t “fear the occurrence of a war.” “We have enough readiness to defend the country,” he said, adding that Iran has boosted its military power over the past 30 years.

The US also plans to send 900 additional troops to the Mideast and extend the stay of another 600 as tens of thousands of others are also on the ground across the region. “Maximum pressure on Iran’s regime continues today,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Deepening Crisis

The crisis has root in President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year of the US from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment activities in return to lifting sanctions. Washington subsequently re-imposed sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into a freefall.

Trump has argued that the deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the US says destabilise the region, as well as address the issue of Tehran’s missiles, which can reach both US regional bases and Israel.

The US also has accused Iran of being behind a string of recent incidents, including what officials allege was sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the UAE. US national security adviser John Bolton, said Iran is responsible for the attacks. The US also believes Iran is responsible for a rocket that landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad, while Yemen’s Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels have launched a string of drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia. The
UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition that has waged war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels since 2015, backed by Iran. Tehran, however, denies arming the Houthis.

Meanwhile, Iran in a letter to the United Nations, which was released on Friday, complained that the re-imposition of US sanctions violates not just the nuclear deal but also the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined it.

“The United States’ unilateral nuclear as well as economic sanctions in defiance of Security Council resolution 2231 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have reached an unprecedented level during the past few months,” Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, said in the letter. “The United States shall bear full responsibility for the consequences of those wrongful acts,” he added.

War Hovers?

Trump told reporters he would “absolutely” be willing to send troops to the Middle East, but that he’s not planned for that and hopefully won’t have to plan for that. In Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while addressing thousands of people on the 30th death anniversary of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, said that, “They want us to be losers and put our hands up as a sign of surrender, and because we don’t do that, they threaten us. Resistance has a cost, but the cost of surrendering to the enemy is higher.”

Iran has also been threatening to close off the Strait of Hormuz if it can’t sell its own oil on the global market. The strait is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded at sea passes. Additionally, over 30% of the world’s liquefied natural gas trade also travels through it.

On May 28, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, with whom Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been fighting a bloody war since March 2015, launched a drone attack on the East-West pipeline, which carries nearly five million barrels of crude oil a day to the Red Sea. The kingdom shut down the pipeline in response, causing a spike in global oil prices.

Such attacks routinely cause higher global oil prices. Threats to the global oil market in the Persian Gulf have been a US national security priority since 1980. The US fought the Gulf War in 1991 to push Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, a major Opec member.

That war gave birth to the vast network of military bases the US now has around the Persian Gulf, bases that Iran regards warily as the USS Abraham Lincoln is parked just outside the Strait of Hormuz. B-52 bombers from Louisiana are already flying missions in the region.

“Iran could actually view some of this as being a potential buildup for some type of offensive action,” says Becca Wasser, a RAND Corp analyst specialising in Gulf security. “It raises the risk of accidental escalation. Because the US and Iran don’t have clear lines of communication at the moment, everything can be perceived in a very different light than one side is intending.”

De-escalation Efforts

As the Middle East buzzed with bellicose rhetoric between Iran and its US-backed Gulf Arab neighbours, Pompeo was in Germany and Switzerland making the case that Washington is not looking for war. He said the US is willing to talk with Iran “with no preconditions” but will not relent on the punishing US sanctions on Iran. Iran says the US must return to the deal first.

Pompeo’s Iran-related diplomacy has already taken him to Iraq, Britain, Belgium and Russia since early May. After talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’, Pompeo said Washington will not stand in the way of a system Europeans are developing to shield companies dealing with Iran from American sanctions, so long as it provides only humanitarian and other permitted goods. Pompeo said the U.S. does not take issue with the system known as INSTEX, so long as it deals with goods not subject to sanctions. “When we think about INSTEX, if it’s aimed at facilitating the movement of goods that are authorized to move, it’s unproblematic,” he said.

From Berlin, Pompeo travelled to Switzerland, for an unusual and extended stop in the country that represents the US diplomatically in Iran and has in the past been an intermediary between the two. Germany’s foreign minister Maas’ is travelling to Iran next week to discuss the faltering nuclear accord between Tehran and leading world powers, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said on Thursday. “We want to preserve this nuclear agreement because we believe it is a good agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Iran has threatened to walk away from the deal unless the other signatories — China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain — take steps to neutralise the effect of U.S. sanctions.

Last Monday, in Japan, Trump said he’d back Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to open a communication with Iran. “I do believe Iran would like to talk and if they’d like to talk, we’ll talk also,” he said. Abe is visiting Iran from June 12, the first by a Japanese leader in 41 years. “We believe it is extremely important that at the leadership level, we call on Iran as a major regional power to ease tension, to adhere to the nuclear agreement and to play a constructive role for the region’s stability,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

However, Iran said it has no interest in negotiations with Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Trump should make his intentions clear about any talks with Iran through actions, not words.

Enriching Uranium

Iran has threatened to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels starting July 7 if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its nuclear deal so as to provide relief from US sanctions.

Iran has already quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium, semi-official news agencies reported. A quadrupling of production would mean that Iran likely will go beyond the stockpile limitations set by the deal. Higher enrichment would mean boosting its concentration of the type of uranium that can power a nuclear reaction.

IAEA raises questions

The UN atomic watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that Iran continues to stay within the limitations set by the 2015 nuclear deal, but reported its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water are growing and raised questions for the first time about Iran’s adherence to a key provision intended to limit the country’s use of advanced centrifuges.

A centrifuge is a device that enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas. Under the atomic accord, Iran has been limited to operating 5,060 older-model IR-1 centrifuges.

The agency said that “up to 33” more advanced IR-6 centrifuges have been installed and that “technical discussions in relation to the IR-6 centrifuges are ongoing.” Under terms of the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to test no more than 30 of the IR-6s once the deal has been in place for 8 1/2 years