June 24, 2019
The drumbeat of war in the Persian/Arab Gulf has become incessant in the past few weeks. Oil tankers have been mysteriously damaged. A US surveillance drone has been shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Missiles have struck Saudi installations and Basra sites. The US has sent a naval armada and 2,500 additional troops to the Gulf, intensified economic pressure and built the legal grounds for military operations against Iran.
The world is waking up to the potentially devastating consequences for the region and the world of this professedly unwanted yet inexorable march towards a US-Iran war.
The conflict may be ‘limited’ at the outset but could escalate rapidly, eg further attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz, US ‘retaliation’ against IRGC gunboats and other naval vessels, Iranian missile strikes against US and GCC targets accompanied by attacks by Iranian or Shia militias against US personnel and installations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and missile and rocket attacks against Israel and Israeli-occupied territories by Hezbollah and other Iran-allied groups. To avoid such anticipated attacks, the US, and possibly Israel, could resort to major pre-emptive aerial strikes to eliminate Iran’s missile and naval capabilities.
However, even if such strikes are successful, Iran is unlikely to capitulate (if its resilience during the Iran-Iraq war is any indication). Under external attack, there will be no popular movement in Iran to oust the regime (although President Rouhani and the ‘moderates’ may be replaced by the hardliners and the IRGC). To remove it, the US and its allies would need to launch a full-fledged invasion of Iran. Given the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Washington nor any regional power, has the stomach for it.
Even if Russia and China, which America has designated as its ‘rivals’, do not intervene, directly or indirectly, on Tehran’s behalf, the end-state of a war with Iran will be: one, chaos within Iran, with the possible eruption of ethnic insurgencies in its peripheral provinces; two, a war of attrition led by the remnants Iranian regular forces and Shia militias against US and allied forces and installations across the region; three, Tehran-inspired intensification of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan; four, an Iranian denunciation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and eventual development of nuclear weapons; five, a major and extended interruption in oil exports from the Gulf, pushing prices to unprecedented heights, and six, a global economic recession.
War is thus a ‘lose-lose’ option for all those who would be involved in this conflict and even those who are not. Regardless of the culpability of those responsible for the reckless actions that have brought the region to the brink of war, common sense, and a sense of self-preservation dictate that the principal parties walk back from the precipice.
Any endeavour towards de-escalation will need to address the major causes of the crisis and respond to the concerns of all parties. Each of the elements of the current confrontation — nuclear proliferation, regional conflicts, economic sanctions, tanker and missile attacks — have been addressed, if at all, in piecemeal fashion so far. They are all interlinked and must be resolved comprehensively and concomitantly.
A first step away from the brink could be acceptance of the UN secretary general’s proposal to hold an independent inquiry into the tanker attacks of May and June. All parties should pledge not to resort to the use of force while this investigation is under way.
Simultaneously, the UN Security Council should demand: one, a halt to the Houthi missile attacks against Saudi and Emirati targets, two, a general ceasefire in Yemen; three, the opening of all avenues for the supply of humanitarian help to the Yemeni population; and four, the initiation of a summit-level dialogue between the main parties to evolve a political solution to the conflict.
Most importantly, the EU, the three European parties to the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia and China, with the support of the UN secretary general and General Assembly, should undertake a high-level diplomatic initiative to: 1) convince Tehran not to breach the limitations, especially on nuclear enrichment levels and stocks, contained in the deal; 2) set up an international mechanism (an Instex plus) to enable Iran to conduct trade as per the terms of the deal; 3) press the US to lift the unilateral sanctions it has imposed on Iran, at least progressively in response to reciprocal confidence-building measures undertaken by Iran; 4) secure Iran’s agreement to discuss and address the widespread concern regarding its policies across the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan; and 5) establish a mechanism to discuss a missile-and-arms-control regime in the region.
Despite Ayatollah Khamanei’s public rejection of talks with the US during the Japanese prime minister’s recent mediatory visit to Tehran, Iran is unlikely to have closed all doors to dialogue. Some of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent statements have mentioned openness to discuss all issues. (He once told me that Iran had proposed a ‘grand bargain’ to the US in 2001-2; the response they received was Iran’s inclusion in the ‘axis of evil’ in president George W. Bush’s September 2002 speech at the UN General Assembly).
The Trump administration appears to be internally conflicted on its Iran policy. There is a general perception that hardliners — National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are pushing President Trump towards a war with Iran. But Trump may be using them,
wittingly or otherwise, as part of his ‘art of the deal’ negotiating strategy. His main objective is to secure re-election in 2020. ‘Success’ in dealing with Iran would enhance his electoral prospects. But a war with an uncertain outcome is a risky strategy. He has notably responded cautiously to the drone downing. A major diplomatic success would be a preferable option for Trump.
Although Iran is not always an easy neighbour, Pakistan has multiple reasons to prevent a war against it. Over the past 40 years, several ‘independent’ Muslim states have been progressively attacked, subverted and neutralised: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan. If Iran is militarily and economically destroyed, who is next?
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.