Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Reason must prevail at a precarious time

Diplomacy and unity are needed at a time of greatly heightened tensions in the Gulf

Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, on a tour of the Middle East. Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, on a tour of the Middle East. Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP

“Common sense” and “nerves of steel”: at a time of heightened tensions in the Gulf, these two factors are critical to a durable political solution. As UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash says, it requires “collective attention...dialogue and negotiations” to steer a path through tricky, uncharted waters. The past few weeks have seen those diplomatic channels tested to their utmost. Iran has been accused of attacking at least six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, using a proxy militia in Yemen to attack Saudi bases and airports and shooting down a $120 million unmanned American drone in the Strait of Hormuz, in what the US says was an unprovoked attack in international airspace. The situation threatened to escalate when US President Donald Trump said on Friday that the country was “cocked and loaded” for airstrikes against Iranian targets. He only rowed back at the last minute, insisting while military action was not off the table, what was needed was “common sense”.

This step back from the brink is indicative of the need for collective, measured voices of reason, at a precarious time, to address the longstanding problem of Tehran’s attempts to destabilise the region. Those voices in the Gulf have been joined by an international chorus. Even the US’s mercurial president recognised that the loss of innocent civilian lives was not justifiable in retaliation for the shooting down of a drone. US special representative to Iran Brian Hook has embarked on a Middle Eastern tour – including a stop in Abu Dhabi – to offer a cohesive, united front in response to the aggression. And US National Security Adviser John Bolton has warned Tehran should not “mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness”.

Together, they represent a call to desist from provocative behaviour which serves no one, least of all Iran. What is needed to de-escalate tensions at a volatile time is a co-ordinated, consistent approach from all members of the international community. A push back, as Mr Hook described it, is fully expected from Iran, aggrieved at a third round of sanctions. But what this squeeze on the economy aims to do is to bring Tehran to the negotiating table for an agreement which addresses all the flaws in the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal, including its ballistic missile programme. That would bring an end to sanctions and Iran’s “violent and expansionist” adventurism. Such an approach requires patience and a steadfast hand on the tiller. Iran, with a struggling economy, cannot afford to persist in its current course of action, nor is it capable of a sustained military response. Time is not on the regime’s side; nor is reason. The common sense approach urged by both Gulf states and the international community is a reflection of the desire for Iran to be a functioning regional player. As UN secretary general Antonio Guterres says, the world does not want or need another war in the Gulf. It will take a steel will to desist from retaliatory action but that is exactly what is needed to pour oil on troubled waters.

Updated: June 23, 2019 08:50 PM

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