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Tensions Mount in the Gulf as World Leaders Gather at UN

If anything, the UN will most likely just pay lip service to the mounting tensions in the Gulf.
UN General Assembly, UN, United Nations, General Assembly, Gulf tensions, Iran, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia, Gulf News, news on the Gulf

Brussels, Belgium on 5/15/2018 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

September 23, 2019 20:51 EDT

On the morning of May 12, unidentified perpetrators attacked four oil tankers off the Fujairah port in the Gulf of Oman. Two of the tankers belonged to Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia. The attacks occurred during Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s state visit to Tehran, which was intended to ease regional tensions.

The international response was swift. The United Arab Emirates described the incident as a “sabotage attack,” while the United States immediately blamed Iran. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Norway launched a joint investigation into the attack, concluding that a “state actor” was behind it.

The events triggered a series of dangerous incidents around the Gulf, including two further attacks on tankers in June, the US and Iran shooting down each other’s drones, and the detention of Iranian and European tankers by both sides. Most recently, on September 14, oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia were struck in drone and cruise missile attacks. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, but the US and Saudi Arabia blame Iran. The Iranians deny any involvement in the attack.

The UN General Assembly

As world leaders gather in New York for the 74th United Nations General Assembly, tensions remain high in the Gulf as Iran continues waging its campaign of “maximum resistance” against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” agenda that a handful of other Western states have been behind to varying degrees. Despite nuclear disarmament and arms control being key aspects of the General Assembly’s agenda, the UN is unlikely to play an integral role in reducing tension between the US and Iran, given the strong-willed nature of these countries.

Nevertheless, it remains the vital interest of all parties to prevent US-Iran brinkmanship from erupting into war, especially one that so directly involves some of the world’s most powerful militaries and has been playing out around the Strait of Hormuz, a highly-strategic chokepoint in the Gulf through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes. Any interruption of international shipping through this narrow strait would have a seismic impact on the global economy, as well as a drastic rise in oil prices.

Since May 2018, when the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over a host of issues, including non-nuclear ones like Iranian conduct in the Middle East (i.e., support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Syrian regime) and its ballistic missile activity, the US has re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Such sanctions threaten European businesses that deal with Iran and have resulted in European firms pulling out of the Islamic Republic despite their keenness to enter Iranian markets after the JCPOA’s watershed passage and implementation in mid-2015 and early 2016, respectively.

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The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has strained the Iranian economy.  With the reimposition of US sanctions, Iran’s GDP contracted by 3.9% in 2018. Additionally, at the start of last year, Iran’s crude oil production peaked at 2.8 million barrels per day (bpd). By March 2019, that dropped to 1.1 million bpd.

Although Tehran stuck to its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA by practicing a policy of “strategic patience” that rested on the assumption that European countries could circumvent US sanctions from excessively harming Iran’s interests, Iranian officials have concluded that such an approach has not succeeded. Consequently, Iran has gradually pulled back from its commitments under the nuclear deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently announced that Iran has begun working on “all kinds” of faster centrifuges, a direct violation of the deal.

Within this context, Iran has left the West worried over its nuclear plans as it looks East to Asian countries to export its oil. Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based political risk consultancy group, describes the strategy’s economic aspect, saying, “Given that a number of countries, most importantly China, are still buying Iranian oil, it seems difficult to imagine the US policy aimed at bringing Iran‘s oil exports to zero as proving successful.” As many experts see it, Washington’s maximum pressure agenda maxed out over the summer, raising questions about what else the US could do outside of military action to pressure Iran into changing its conduct.

With the Iranian government undeterred by US actions, the burden of maintaining what is left of the nuclear deal rests with European partners and their efforts to ease the blow of US sanctions on Iran. This comes at an especially difficult time as the United Kingdom deals with the Brexit saga and right-wing, populist and nationalist governments in mainland Europe challenge the EU’s capacity to promote global cooperation.

The efforts to incentivize Iran to uphold its end of the bargain under the JCPOA have been unsuccessful, given the country’s recent nuclear developments. Addressing the European role in the tensions since the 2018 pullout, Cafiero says, “Because the US dominates the global banking industry, European states have been unable to chart an independent course in relation to Iran and the nuclear deal.”

A War of Words

With rising tensions between the US, Europe and Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have effectively found themselves in the crossfire during this summer’s series of detained and attacked tankers. That said, it is important to recognize that Saudi Arabia’s approach vis-à-vis Iran has not been subdued.

Last year at the 73rd UN General Assembly, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir condemned Iran, stating: “Iran continues its terrorist activities and hostile behavior. The kingdom expresses its support to the new American strategy in dealing with Iran … Achieving peace and stability in the Middle East requires deterring Iran‘s expansionist and subversive policies.”

Similarly, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed cited Iran’s “nefarious” interventionist policies, attributing it to the region’s escalation in violence. In his address last year, he said, “Certain countries, particularly Iran, are prone to attacking the security of the region, spreading chaos, violence and sectarianism.”

The Iranian side also traded bellicose rhetoric at last year’s General Assembly, foreshadowing the rise in tensions that erupted a year later. President Rouhani delivered harsh statements directed at the United States. He said that “by violating its international commitments, the new US administration only destroys its own credibility and undermines international confidence in negotiating with it.” He also condemned the rhetoric launched against the Iranian regime, describing it as “ignorant, absurd and hateful … filled with ridiculously baseless allegations.”

As the parties gather for this year’s UN General Assembly, the rhetoric and addresses are somewhat unpredictable, especially after US President Donald Trump recently fired John Bolton, his third national security adviser since 2017. Bolton, known for his hawkish foreign policy on Iran — which included pushing for regime change and war — was a chief proponent of the maximum pressure strategy. However, according to a source close to Bolton, Trump and his now-former national security adviser were at odds over the president’s apparent suggestion of lifting sanctions on Iran as a negotiating incentive.

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With Bolton’s departure, Washington’s foreign policy toward Iran might become less hawkish. Additionally, there is the possibility of American and Iranian diplomats coming together at the negotiating table, with speculation about Trump meeting with Rouhani.

That said, the recent attacks targeting Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, which resulted in the state-owned oil company’s production being halved, may cut the prospects for diplomatic outreach between Washington and Tehran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet attributing the strikes to Iran raises questions about whether hardline figures in the Iranian regime may have provoked the perpetrators to carry out these attacks, with the aim of derailing any potential diplomatic outreach between the US and Iran in the aftermath of Bolton’s ouster.

The Iranian leadership’s rhetoric at the General Assembly will be highly informative in terms of understanding Tehran’s approach to dealing with the Trump administration. Depending on if and how US foreign policy shifts, as well as how suspicious Tehran regards any potential change in Washington’s Iran strategy, the Islamic Republic may continue its criticism of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as it has done during previous UN gatherings.

Moreover, the other address to keep a close eye on at this year’s assembly is the UAE’s, given its recent scaling down of support for Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. This comes at its realization that continued backing of the increasingly hostile US approach toward Iran may lead to a war in the Gulf, in turn jeopardizing the UAE’s own regional interests.

Notable examples of Abu Dhabi’s shift in Iranian foreign policy include its cautious response to the May 12 tanker attacks, labeling them as “sabotage” by a “state actor” but not directly pointing fingers at Iran. Additionally, the UAE initiated diplomatic outreach to Iran in July. Whether or not these shifts will be reflected publicly at the UAE’s General Assembly address remains to be seen.

Overall, with this buildup of tensions involving such strong-willed countries that lack permanent status in the UN Security Council (UNSC), it is unlikely that the United Nations will be able to foster any sort of multilateral rapprochement.

If anything, the UN will most likely just pay lip service to the mounting tensions in the Gulf and verbally demand a de-escalation.

*[Gulf State Analytics is a partner institution of Fair Observer. Updated on September 24, 2019: An earlier version of this article contained comments by Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which have been removed at her request.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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