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Crisis in the Gulf

June 23, 2019

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OVER the past few days, the US and Iran have come perilously close to conflict, and if various accounts doing the rounds are to be believed, Washington was on the verge of ordering strikes against the Islamic Republic. Though the crisis has been brewing for several weeks, things came to a head on Thursday when the Iranians shot down an American drone they said was intruding into their airspace. The US, meanwhile, claims the craft was operating in international territory. Following this episode, there have been revelations that the US was about to launch retaliatory strikes against Iran, but pulled back at the last minute on the orders of President Donald Trump. This series of events illustrates just how combustible the situation in the Gulf is, and that amidst the posturing and psychological warfare, the threat of an actual conflict may be closer than many imagine. It appears that there is a fair bit of indecision within the White House; war hawks in Mr Trump’s inner circle have long been pushing for conflict with Iran, but more pragmatic elements within the establishment — as well as Mr Trump’s own disinclination towards a new war at this time — seem to be keeping their provocations in check. Yet the US president himself is sending mixed messages; on Friday, he said he was still willing to talk to Iran, but in the same breath threatened the country with “obliteration”. In response, a senior Iranian general has said that in case of an attack, US interests in the region would be “set on fire”.

Clearly, in this game of brinksmanship — with the US primarily responsible — a conflict in the Gulf would unleash a catastrophe. Though America is the superior military power, Iran’s asymmetrical capabilities should not be underestimated; any conflagration is unlikely to remain localised and may stretch from the Gulf to the Levant, while also sparking sectarian tensions in Muslim states where the conflict will be given a communal colour because of the involvement of America’s Arab allies. There is still time to step back, and the ball is primarily in America’s court. If Mr Trump wants to avoid war, he must rein in his virulently anti-Iran deputies, stop threatening to destroy the Islamic Republic, and end the economic strangulation of Tehran through sanctions. These moves may rebuild Iranian trust. Moreover, regional states such as Pakistan can also play a conciliatory role, given the threat a war would pose to their own security.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2019