In the past few weeks, events in the Gulf of Oman have led to rising tensions between the United States and Iran with each side attempting to signal the other in order to protect their respective interests.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Edward Davies, an MA in International Relations at the University of Leeds with a keen interest in the military especially the RAF, having been a member of Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron.
This comes amidst a longer trend of deteriorating relations between the two nations following President Trump’s decision to withdraw from a multilateral deal limiting Iran’s nuclear programme on the 8th May last year. However, the crisis carries significance, not only for the gulf, but in the wider geopolitical context.
Tensions were once again sparked between the US and Iran this year on the 8th of April as the US blacklisted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a ‘terrorist organisation’. This has been followed by a series of US deployments to the region, including a carrier strike group, B-52 bomber task force, Patriot missile battery and amphibious assault ship with the US citing credible intelligence of a threat to US forces amid escalating tensions.
This deployment of assets has been backed-up by new sanctions being imposed on Iranian steel and mining industries which have now been expanded to include the Supreme Leader Khamenei himself.
Iran reciprocated in kind labelling US troops stationed in the wider Middle East as ‘terrorists’ before announcing its intentions to surpass levels of enriched uranium agreed under the 2015 treaty which was confirmed by the IAEA.
Attacks on commercial shipping, which the US had attributed to Iran, in the strait of Hormuz alongside the downing of an American MQ-4C Navy and drone further escalated tensions with President Trump later ordering strikes against Iranian military installations only to call-off the attacks at the last minute and conducting cyber attacks against the country’s weapons systems, specifically systems controlling rocket and missile launchers and more recently downing an Iranian drone which approached the USS Boxer.
Iran has further showed it’s intent and capability in the region by first harassing and then seizing a British flagged oil tanker in retaliation for UK actions off the coast of Gibraltar which led to the detaining of an Iranian tanker bound for Syria.
The rhetoric from both sides has mirrored these events becoming increasingly tense and hostile with Trump warning Iran not to threaten the US and claiming a fight between the two nations would mean ‘the official end of Iran!’ and the US is ready to respond to any attack whether it is conducted by proxy, the IRGC or Iran itself. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zari, has stated that Iran is ready to defend its borders.
Despite the escalating military deployments and twitter rhetoric, each side has claimed they wish to avoid war. Whilst this may be the case, what is actually unfolding in the gulf is a complicated game of chess with each side attempting to ‘signal’ the other; drawing ‘red lines’ which each side should avoid if they wish to avoid a response from the other.
These ‘red lines’ are indicative of a nation’s national interest and attempt to reinforce rhetoric with action showing both capability and intent to back up their claims. In this way, the US will be attempting to protect international shipping, avoiding a repeat of the 1987 crisis, and protecting its hegemonic status; demonstrating to Iran and others in the region that it is still committed to the Middle East despite it’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Conversely, Iran will be looking to make both political and military gains of its own; increasing it’s regional influence and status whilst securing its nuclear programme to maintain the threat of nuclear weapons production in the future.
Although it may be true that both Iran and the US wish to avoid a war, each side will attempt to do this on their terms whilst protecting their national interest. This is dangerous as this signalling is open to misinterpretation, which can contribute to miscalculations from both sides resulting in a response which may not have been intended. As both nations rack up both rhetoric and military deployments in the area and tensions rise as the narrow Gulf becomes increasingly contested, it is a game in which a minor miscalculation can run the risk of ‘spilling over’ into a much wider regional conflict or war. Whilst the situation in the Gulf has now slipped from the headlines of the front pages, the risk of conflict remains very real, with serious diplomatic talks and a step-down of rhetoric, sanctions and military assets needed to alleviate immediate tensions. It remains to be seen how America plans to manage Iran’s longer term strategic goals for the region, balancing these against its own interests.
Additionally, the crisis also carries further significance for the US’s response to a rising China in South-East Asia. With strategic distrust growing between the US and China over the past decade, the two nations interests have increasingly come into conflict with one another as the US looks to solidify its influence in the region and China looks to challenge it.
The Strait of Malacca is of significant strategic importance to both the US and China and bares a striking resemblance to the strait of Hormuz. A narrow channel that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans the straight and is only 1.5 nautical miles at its narrowest as it transgresses between Malaysia and Singapore. As a result of its location, the straight is a key thorough-fare for international trade and of vital economic importance with approximately 100,000 vessels and a quarter of all sea-carried oil passes through it each year facilitating trade between some of the worlds biggest economies in the Asia-Pacific region with the energy and resource producing nations of the middle east and Africa.
As a result of this, the strait is a key strategic water-way which could be blockaded in the event of conflict in an attempt to starve China of essential war materials and restrict the movement of either sides naval forces.
Whilst this scenario may seem unlikely in the short-term, in the past decade, China has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, moving away from its traditional mantra of ‘hide and bide’, a tactic employed to make small, incremental gains that go largely unnoticed without being challenged, to a more direct strategy. In recent years, China has undergone a massive building programme, developing a fully-fledged ‘blue water’ navy which has increased not only in numbers (consisting of just 57 vessels in 1996 to over 300 in 2018) but also enhancing it’s capability. This has been accompanied with a policy of ‘land reclamation’ which has developed fully fledged islands, in some instances even air bases, from what were previously small rocky outcrops. These two factors combined have lead to increasing tensions in the South China Sea as US and Chinese forces shadow one another as they operate through contested waters.
Additionally, it is clear how serious a threat the Chinese State views this scenario in light of its one belt one road policy, which is in part designed to counter China’s reliance on the strait whilst also increasing Chinese influence throughout the wider region.
As a result, China is sure to be watching how the US strategy to combat Iran’s push-back in the gulf as it provides a useful exercise of which will allow Chinese strategists a valuable chance to contribute to their surely already established strategy to strategy to counter this US actions in the worst-case scenario with hostilities breaking out between the two nations.
What happens in the Gulf of Oman and the South China Sea matters to the UK.
Any hostilities in either of these strategically important areas the risk of destabilising either region, leading to wider conflict and disrupting international trade and impacting oil prices. More immediately, as recent events off the coast of Gibraltar and Iran have demonstrated, as a nation which relies heavily on and enforces an open rules based international order which has facilitated international sea trade, the regions security and freedom of navigation of these sea-lanes is vital to the UK’s economy and interests.
Additionally, any challenge to the current US/Western led international order is of great importance to the UK as a result of its privileged position it enjoys as a permanent member of the UNSC and close ally of the United States.