By Antonino Occhiuto - 2019, and the April-July period in particular, may be characterised by a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Arab Gulf. If uncontrolled such escalation could lead to an unprecedented military confrontation between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To contextualise, on 8 May 2018, US President, Donald Trump, announced Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal. Despite EU efforts to save the deal, in April 2019 Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, announced that Tehran was ready to end limitations on its nuclear programme.
Arguably, Tehran coupled its traditional post-1979 strategy—involving covert activities and infiltration of its proxies into other countries—with a series of direct attacks and threats against US interests and allies in the region, when Washington’s sanctions began taking a toll on Tehran’s leaders rather than on Iran’s economy in general. For instance a major turning point in the escalation of tensions between Washington and the Arab Gulf states on one side and Tehran on the other was the US Administration’s decision (8 April 2019) to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. Trump declared that listing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation was in-line with the Administration’s policy to significantly expand the scope and scale of maximum pressure on the Iranian regime; to force the Islamic Republic to enter fresh negotiations for a new deal that would include the suspension of Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the IRGC’s interference in the internal affairs of other regional actors. The IRGC’s designation imposed wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the leaders of the Quds Force—the IRGC group responsible for training and directing Tehran’s Shiite proxy militias in the Arab Middle East.
The first major Iranian attack in the Gulf targeted international Energy Transmission Infrastructure (ETI). On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers (2 from Saudi Arabia, 1 from the UAE and 1 from Norway) were damaged off the Emirati coast. The findings of an international investigation into the incident—led by Abu Dhabi and Oslo—described a sophisticated operation by divers from fast boats utilising limpet mines to breach the hulls of the ships. This was shortly followed by Iran’s announcement it was ramping-up its production of nuclear fuel, following through on the threat to begin walking away from the nuclear deal. Then, on 14 May 2019, attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil pipelines in Riyadh province by Iran-backed proxies operating drones from neighbouring Iraq took place.
Since June, tensions have been rapidly escalating: Yemen’s Houthis repeatedly attacked Abha International Airport, in Southern Saudi Arabia, with cruise missiles on June 12. On 14 and 17 June the Houthis targeted again Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport using Iran-made Qasef-K2 drones.
The following day, 13 June, explosions crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, (1 Japanese, 1 Norwegian) prompting the US military to release video footage showing a Revolutionary Guards’ patrol boat pulling up alongside one of the stricken ships, in the aftermath of the explosion, and removing an unexploded limpet mine. Following the attack, international crude oil prices rose some 3%, indirectly increasing the cost of isolating Iran for non-oil exporting countries.
In response to increased activities by Iran, on 17 June, the Pentagon ordered the deployment of 1,000 troops to the Middle East, equipped with surveillance assets, missile batteries and fighter jets in addition to the bombers and to the Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier Strike Group, already operating in the region for deterrence purposes. Crucially, on the same day, Tehran announced it had been increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and it was set to exceed what was originally authorised as part of the JCPOA in 2015—potentially enabling the Islamic Republic to build a nuclear bomb.
On 19 June, Iran-backed Houthis increased the range of their attacks inside Saudi Arabia by targeting the Al-Shuqaiq integrated water and power plant complex with ballistic missiles. This event preceded what is, to date, the most significant incident in the recent escalation. On 20 June, an Iranian surface-to-air missile(SAM)—fired from the Islamic Republic’s Khordad-3 air defence system—downed a US Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance drone, flying over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran accused the United States of spying over its territorial waters while the Pentagon condemned the strike as an “unprovoked” act of hostility and declared that the aircraft was patrolling international airspace. On the same day the Houthis struck Saudi Arabia’s Jizan airport with Qasef-K2 drones.
Washington responded on 23 June, with a cyber-attack targeting Tehran’s air defence rocket launch systems. Reportedly, this response came after Trump decided to abort a targeted air strike against IRGC installations inside Iran.
The latest incident took place on 4 July, involving British Royal Marines and customs agents in Gibraltar which seized an oil tanker transporting Iranian oil to Syria, at the request of the US and in violation of EU sanctions on the Assad regime. The mapping data of the ship showed it sailed a longer route around the southern tip of Africa instead of crossing Egypt's Suez Canal. On 5 July, Iran’s IRGC threatened to seize a British oil tanker in response.
Officials in both Iran and the US seem prepared to accept the risks related to a short, military escalation. In Washington, US National Security Advisor, John Bolton and others have repeatedly argued that the US should not refrain from using military force when dealing with the Ayatollah’s regime. Likewise, in Tehran, the new IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, and the most hard-line clerics view a short military confrontation with the US as a unique opportunity to rally popular support behind them and discredit internal rivals regardless of the outcome of the war.
On the other hand, while President Trump is reluctant to commit the US into a major military confrontation before running for a second term in office, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is aware that a war might bring about chaos and undermine his succession plans for Iran’s leadership. For this reason, in the coming days it is likely that both the US and Iran, despite continuing to engage in a war of words, will not seek further direct provocations.
The situation remains extremely tense. Tehran’s proxies continue to target US allies in the region while Washington’s sanctions are hitting Iran’s economy in an unprecedented way. In the coming months the IRGC can be expected to carry out further operations targeting US interests directly and the international oil trade to raise the economic costs of Iran’s isolation. The EU, having spent considerable political capital on a peaceful relation with Iran, remains paralyzed between the unwillingness to condemn the Islamic Republic for its escalation and the fear that Tehran’s future activities will target its own economic interests. A war would certainly hit many economic interests at a global level. Moreover, what are initially planned to be short conflicts can easily turn into long and complicated wars.
The EGIC will continue to monitor the risk of a major conflict, which would almost certainly involve Iran’s proxies such as the Houthis while being highly detrimental to the people in the entire region.