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Editorial: Avoiding a nightmare
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 05 - 2019

Reports of attacks on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, are indeed very worrying amid the current escalation in tension between Iran and the United States.
A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Arab Gulf crude producers on the way to major markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.
Iran so far has distanced itself from these extremely dangerous incidents, describing them as “worrisome and dreadful” and blaming “saboteurs from a third country” for carrying out the attacks on the four ships.
However, considering the current state of confrontation between Iran and its key Gulf neighbours, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have strong US backing, fingers are likely to be pointed at Tehran, or one of its proxies in the region.
Houthi rebels in Yemen, who reportedly receive Iranian support, had already threatened to attack targets in the UAE for being a key partner in the Saudi-led war to back the legitimate Yemeni government based in Aden. Iranian officials, namely from the Revolutionary Guard, have already been quoted as warning that in case Saudi Arabia and the UAE helped US President Donald Trump's policy of “zero Iranian oil exports” by compensating any expected shortage in world oil production, the Iranian military would aim at closing the strategic oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz.
The long existing tension between the US and its Arab Gulf allies, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, provides the context for a possible conflict happening by accident between Washington and Tehran amid an unravelling nuclear deal. If such a military confrontation takes place, it would be the worst possible nightmare scenario, not just for the US and Iran, but for the entire Middle East region.
Carrying out an election campaign pledge, Trump withdrew last year from a 2015 pact between Iran and global powers aimed at reining in Tehran's nuclear plans. Since then, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to change its aggressive policies in the region and support for countries and groups that oppose American interests.
When former US president Barack Obama joined world powers in signing the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, the assumption was that this would bring Tehran to change its aggressive policies through economic incentives after decades of tight US sanctions that followed the Iranian Revolution in 1979. However, Trump argues that this strategy failed, and that the nuclear deal, co-signed by Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, had only provided Iran with billions of dollars in cash that were used to expand Iranian influence in the Middle East region. Thus, he decided to restore the policy of tight and wide-ranging sanctions in order to bring changes in Iranian behaviour.
While top US officials in the State Department and the Pentagon continue to declare that they are not intent on a getting into a war with Iran, such a scenario cannot be excluded considering the current tension and dangerous incidents occurring. Moving US air carriers, Patriot missiles and other American military equipment to the Gulf might be seen as an attempt to bring more US pressure on Tehran, but it can also be taken as a sign of a possible looming military confrontation.
US policymakers are certainly aware that Iran, despite all the fiery rhetoric coming from the Ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard commanders, is not looking for a military confrontation with the United States. However, their response to Trump's tight sanctions might come indirectly through proxy wars in countries where Iran has strong influence, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Those countries are already suffering tremendous hardships, and what they need is international involvement to end the suffering of their peoples, and not to add to such hardships by turning them into fronts for indirect US-Iranian confrontation.
Despite all Trump's tweets and threats, the US president has left the door slightly open for possible negotiations with Iran, saying that he has provided the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which overlooks US interests, with a phone number that Iranians could use in order to negotiate a new agreement. Perhaps the time has come for Iranians to use this phone number to save their own interests before anything else. A new war in this troubled region is certainly a development that no country can afford, with extremely dangerous consequences for the Middle East and the entire world.


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