Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Why Iran is bent on escalating tensions in the Gulf

Emboldened by its deal-making with China, it now seeks to intimidate its neighbours in the Strait of Hormuz

An Iranian navy warship parades during the last day of military exercise in the Gulf waters, near the Strait of Hormuz this week. EPA
An Iranian navy warship parades during the last day of military exercise in the Gulf waters, near the Strait of Hormuz this week. EPA

Things could heat up in the already contentious Strait of Hormuz even before the US presidential election is upon us on November 3. Tensions are expected to rise, although they will depend on whether China accepts Iran’s invitation to use its military ports, marking a major leap for Beijing in the region – and, as a consequence of this new partnership, if the Iranian leadership excessively flexes its muscles during its military drills, scheduled to be carried out this month and next.

The US and China, the world's two largest powers, seem to be preparing themselves for some sort of a standoff following a deterioration in relations over a range of issues – especially as Beijing concludes strategic deals with the Iranian regime, which is at loggerheads with Washington. If the deal fructifies, Iran will become forward military base for China. Mindful of the challenges it faces as a result of this arrangement, the US is already developing long-term plans to contain Beijing and Tehran.

The expected rise in tensions could pose a huge headache for other nations in the region – particularly those run by weak governments, such as Iraq and Lebanon – and possibly even a regional power as big as Russia, which has deepened its interests in war-torn Syria.

At this point, the pertinent questions to ask relate to the upcoming US election: what would President Donald Trump do if he wins a second term, having initially forged sound relations with China before the Covid-19 outbreak? What would Joe Biden do if he becomes president?

There is more clarity about Mr Trump's policies vis-a-vis Iran and China: he seeks to seal deals with both countries on his terms, yet he will not back down if either one of them escalates tensions. Sanctions are his biggest weapon, having proved effective against Tehran, and he will not hesitate to use them.

It might make sense to assume, therefore, that Beijing would be hoping to see Mr Trump defeated in November. But that is an inaccurate assessment to make, because there now exists a bipartisan consensus in Washington over the need for the US to contain China's rise. America has demonstrated that when its national interests are at stake, plans are made not over four years but four decades.

And yet, knowing that each individual will handle the challenge differently, the world is closely watching the election saga.

Before that, though, It seems increasingly likely that both China and Russia risk inviting American sanctions after October 18, when Washington's efforts to prevent the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Tehran are expected to fail. With Moscow and Beijing supposedly keen to sell arms to the regime, the Trump administration will likely target Iranian, Chinese and Russian companies, should agreements be signed.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has informed the country's parliament of a 25-year strategic partnership deal with China. EPA
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has informed the country's parliament of a 25-year strategic partnership deal with China. EPA

Russia is already under pressure from the European Union, particularly Germany, following the poisoning of its dissident Alex Navalny, allegedly carried out on the orders of senior officials in Moscow, if you were to believe US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Germany's insistence could lead to an open confrontation between Russia and the West, possibly triggering European and American sanctions against Moscow. The standoff could also hit economic co-operation between Russia and Germany, especially in the energy sector. This will mark a significant departure for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long advocated the deepening of Russian-European relations.

As serious as that may be, it is likely to pale in comparison to the troubles brewing between the US and China.

Beijing, it appears, intends to counter possible American sanctions by ramping up its investments across sectors and facilities inside Iran. Tehran, in turn, has offered the People's Liberation Army Navy access to Iranian ports – potentially altering the geopolitical landscape.

US President Donald Trump has used the sanctions weapon rather effectively. AFP
US President Donald Trump has used the sanctions weapon rather effectively. AFP

Iran, meanwhile, looks set to conduct large-scale military drills with the purpose of intimidating its neighbours. Tehran will be emboldened by the prospect of current US sanctions being nullified by Chinese financial support. But these drills are dangerous, as they could lead to unexpected outcomes in the short term. In the long term, however, Washington will hope that sanctioning Chinese companies will turn the tables on the Chinese-Iranian project. Irrespective, this is probably going to be a fateful battle for the US – and not just the current administration.

As part of its strategy to curb Iran's influence in the region, Washington has issued a stern warning to Hezbollah, Tehran's proxy in Lebanon, and those who enable it. It has done so by imposing sanctions on former ministers Youssef Fenianos and Ali Hassan Khalil, with the latter seen to be close to Nabih Berri, Speaker of Parliament and leader of the influential Amal Movement.

Former Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Youssef Fenianos were sanctioned by the US for providing material support to Hezbollah. EPA
Former Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Youssef Fenianos were sanctioned by the US for providing material support to Hezbollah. EPA

Some within the ranks of the Free Patriotic Movement, to which President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil belong, mistakenly assume the US will not dare to impose sanctions on them. However, the message from the Trump administration is clear: the sanctions list will spare no one who has given cover to Hezbollah, or who has forgotten that partnering up with Hezbollah and Hamas, in Palestine, amounts to a red line. We will have to wait and see if other groups and individuals are also targeted, including former prime minister Saad Hariri and veteran parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt.

Whether or not Iran can overcome the challenges it faces from the West inside Lebanon, it is certain that the regime in Tehran will use the leverage it gets from its deal-making with China to try and dominate the region. What the specific consequences of this dangerous strategy are, only time will tell.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: September 12, 2020 04:50 PM

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