SINGAPORE: Recent alleged sabotage attacks on four ships in the Persian Gulf represent a dangerous development in the context of growing tensions between the US and Iran.
As US-Iran relations sour over Tehran’s decision to partially withdraw from its commitment to the Iran Nuclear deal, Washington has already announced a deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force into the Persian Gulf to send a “clear and unmistakable message to the Iran regime”.
The attacks on Monday (May 13), observers fear, may be the spark that sends the two erstwhile rivals spiralling into some form of open confrontation. US diplomatic staff were also ordered to evacuate from neighbouring Iraq due to the rising tensions on Wednesday.
READ: Factbox - Iran's commitments under its nuclear deal
President Donald Trump issued an ominous warning to Iran on Sunday (May 19), suggesting that if the Islamic republic attacks American interests, it will be destroyed.
"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again," Trump said in a tweet.
AN ESCALATING EXCHANGE
While details behind the attack on the tankers are still murky, both Washington and Tehran have attributed the attacks to the other party.
An initial assessment by US intelligence has blamed Iran for the sabotage, while Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi has hinted at “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security”, implying that the attacks were initiated by the US or its allies as a pretext for military engagement.
Viewed through the lens of their simmering conflict, the attacks can only heighten the growing distrust between the US and Iran, as each sees the attacks as an act of aggression from the other side.
Worse, the strategic value of the Persian Gulf may also lead to both Washington and Tehran viewing the attacks as a threat to their regional security interests.
Control of these vital waters is not only crucial for Iran’s national security by serving as a buffer zone against regional rivals, the Gulf is also a key energy supply route that can significantly affect the economy and energy security of the US.
Already perceiving the other party as responsible for the attacks, should the US or Iran feel that this incident tangibly threaten the security of themselves and their allies, hawks on either side could use this incident to justify a military confrontation.
AMERICA’S TOUGHER STANCE AGAINST IRAN
America’s move towards a tougher stance against Iran has been praised and encouraged by its Middle Eastern allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia – who are at geopolitical loggerheads with Tehran.
With relations having cooled under the Obama administration owing to the compromises the US president made to bring about peace with Iran, Trump’s correction of his Iran policy has been perceived by Israel and Saudi Arabia as a renewal of the US’s commitment to defending their respective regional security interests.
Encouragement from hawkish Tel Aviv and Riyadh may strengthen US resolve to use economic pressure and military force against Tehran.
This grim scenario is a stark contrast to the “good feeling” between both countries in 2015 when the Obama Administration negotiated a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. Requiring Tehran to set back its nuclear weapons programme by ten years in return for relief from US sanctions, the deal aimed not only to reduce nuclear proliferation in the Middle East but also to pave the way for future reconciliation between both countries.
While the agreement was in many ways imperfect and the possibility of reconciliation uncertain, it did succeed in achieving its short-run objective of retarding Iran’s nuclear development, as IAEA confirmed that Tehran had been keeping to its obligations under the deal.
President Trump, however, has taken a very different approach to relations with Iran. In contrast to Obama’s more conciliatory attitude towards Tehran, his administration has adopted a markedly more antagonistic stance towards the Islamic Republic, continuing to view it as a threat despite its continued compliance with the Nuclear Deal.
Washington has re-imposed sanctions on Iran and withdrawn unilaterally from the Iran Nuclear Deal, giving Tehran the impression that the US is reneging on its peaceful overtures in 2015.
While observers describe Trump’s foreign policy as isolationist, his recent actions have revealed a more hawkish approach to foreign policy. Aside from tensions with Tehran, Trump has flirted with regime change in an increasingly unstable Venezuela, unilaterally declared a trade war against China and confiscated a North Korean cargo ship following failed de-nuclearisation talks with Pyongyang.
Surrounded by hawkish advisors – particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton – the mercurial president, in fact, now finds himself the voice of reason in a White House dominated by hawks, increasing the risk of the US slipping into war.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal has weakened the US’s international credibility – Tehran will no longer be so willing to trust its overtures towards peace out of fear of being “double-crossed” once again.
Worse, North Korea – with whom Washington has been working with towards de-nuclearisation – may see this event as a sign that the Trump was never serious about his peaceful overtures in the first place, hindering the resumption of denuclearisation talks.
Unable to trust that successive US governments will keep to the commitments of their predecessors, US adversaries may take a more uncompromising approach to relations with Washington, making a negotiated settlement more difficult to achieve.
Both Tehran and Washington have so far claimed that they do not wish for a war to occur between them. Yet, with tensions creeping towards dangerous levels, it is unclear if both sides may end up inadvertently falling into a mutually-damaging state of open conflict that will come at a high cost and make backing down close to impossible.
It remains to be seen if cooler heads will prevail and call a halt to this dangerous conflict before these two erstwhile enemies finally come to blows over their long-running feud.
Ng Qi Siang is Policy Analyst at the Yale-NUS College’s Roosevelt Institute’s Economic Development and Inclusion Policy Centre.