I watched have USA-Iran quarrels linked to the assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani. Leaving aside the pre-existing dramas that led to this attack – mistrust and suspicions, ironical cooperation between the USA and Iran in the war against ISIS, sanctions against Iran that squeezed her economy (close to 10 per cent contraction in 2019) without altering her foreign policy imperatives, etc – one is left wondering: what are these hawkish behaviours leading to?
Delving deep into regional geopolitics of northwest Asia (aka Middle East) can lead to difficult terminologies and debates that are unhelpful to everyday readers.
Let us focus on what the everyday person stands to lose or gain if US-Iran tensions escalate, and then peer into the future. I am not worried about possible escalation, unless some extraneous factor unrelated to the geopolitical realities of northwest Asia comes into play. One such factor relates to domestic politics in both USA and Iran.
President Trump is facing an impeachment, which he lost in the House of Representatives and hopes to survive in Congress. Killing Gen Soleimani might have been intended or served to divert US domestic attention to some foreign ‘threat’: you saw the statements American generals made after Iran threatened retaliation.
Now US voters’ attention can be diverted to Iran, to the Middle East, away from the impeachment process. In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani’s government worked hard to develop a “budget of resistance”: the country is working hard to survive US sanctions by ensuring that low- and middle-income Iranians remain loyal.
They are deepening internal markets. They are identifying new revenue sources and channels. They reduced subsidies. The national currency, the Rial, is recovering. Thus, while Trump might need an issue attractive enough to keep Americans ‘looking East’ and away from ongoing sanctions process, Iran does not need a war to further cripple her economy.
But what political scientists call “linkage politics” needs serious consideration: the idea that a state’s foreign policy choice or course of action depends as much upon another state’s likely behaviour in a different issue area as on a current issue of contention.
If Americans counter-react in response to the Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq, which they seem to be letting pass, and had better do so, the escalation might worsen and leave Americans guiltier and more stressed. They may win battles but lose the war.
The linkage politics issue here is the strategic invulnerability of the Straits of Hormoz.
Tensions cannot escalate because they are taking place in and around the Strait of Hormoz, between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the wider ocean.
The strait is so important that it is the world’s most strategically important chokepoint; that is, in case of full-scale war military forces would have to pass through this narrow space with decreased combat power despite technological advantages of airpower and precision-guided munitions.
Hormoz is unlike the wider and more outstretching Gulf of Aden, which separates the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa but also became globally important since the 1970s when Egyptians widened and reopened the Suez Canal.
The Strait of Hormoz is shared between Iran to the north, UAE and Oman to the south, but is very narrow (about 167 km long; 96 km wide). Who holds the stake in the strait? About the whole world: one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and about a quarter of global petroleum (oil and gas) products pass through the strait.
This is not just an American or Iranian affair but a global concern for international trade and economic survival. Neither the USA nor Iran would want to see this chokepoint left to anarchists, pirates and terrorists.
It is possible for Americans to militarily destroy Iran in a shorter time than they possibly can do using economic sanctions. Even if alliances were brought into the equation (Russia, China, North Korea siding with Iran; Nato and regional allies with USA), and East-West confrontation imagined, comparative military advantages accrue more to the Euro-American space than to the Eurasian space. The techno-scientific and socioeconomic basis of this relative capability are clear to anyone interested in “total wars.”
Yet, Iranians, in their “proportionate” retaliation that hit Ain al-Asad in Anbar province and a facility in Erbil, Kurdish region, not only met the expectations of an enraged domestic audience and citizenry but also demonstrated their ability to fire smart munitions. The message? Iran has ability, though not comparable effectiveness, to hit inside American spaces without causing “collateral damage” (you and I expect Americans to have anti-missile defence/deterrence systems in their very-secured bases, right?).
This sends signals: as Americans “beat their enemies harder than they have ever been beaten before”, Iranians and their would-be supporters might also bombard US allies and US-base-hosting countries in the region, including Oman, UAE, which ‘touch’ this vital strait. This might cause regional instability around the strait. The result might be costly – USA and Nato would need to permanently deploy around the strait to protect petroleum outflows (crude oil, gas, etc) as surrounding states – Iran, Iraq, Oman – would be in shambles.
Pirates, terrorists, anti-American, anti-Western groups, anarchists, extremists, might find reason and opportunity to point their guns against ‘invading foreign forces’ protecting the strait, keeping western actors regretting their mistake. Libya, Somalia, Iraq, have not been enviable experiences.
The process and cost of establishing full Euro-American (Nato, if you will) control, amidst opposing groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and geopolitical opposition from countries like Russia and China, would be lengthy and demanding, leaving the world economy squeezed.
These considerations provide a glimpse of strategic invulnerability for the strait, at least for the present. So, the Americans and Iraqis alike appear better advised in such a situation.
The writer is an independent consultant and holds a PhD in Political Science (International Politics & Security).