The Persian Gulf has been simmering since President Trump withdrew from JCPOA (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e., Iran Nuclear Deal) and re-imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran. In April 2019, the Trump administration in a more provocative move also imposed sanctions on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In May, four oil tankers were targeted in Gulf Of Oman in UAE’s territorial waters i.e. Saudi’s Amjad & Al Marzoqah, Norwegian flag holder Andrea Victory and UAE’s A Michel. These attacks were followed by two more on June 13 targeting Oil vessels Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, off the Strait of Hormuz. The American Navy responded to their distress calls and rescued crews of both the tankers. Pictures released by the US Navy show that these Oil tankers were attacked by torpedoes or limpet mines which are used by IRGC. Iran however, refuted the American and Saudi allegations denying any link to Oil tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman.
Tensions between Iran and America further escalated on 20th June when Iran claimed to have shot down a US Stealth Drone RQ-4A Global Hawk which conducting surveillance off the Iranian coast in the Strait of Hormuz. The American military also confirmed its drone was shot down by Iran enraging the Trump Administration that was minutes away from retaliating on Iran while Russia and China called on America to think through before initiating any disastrous conflict with Iran. The war clouds over Iran may have temporarily lifted, yet the region continues to simmer as the British Royal Navy recently stopped an Oil tanker carrying Iranian oil to Syria in Gibraltar purportedly in violation of EU sanctions. The Iranians threatened the British of consequences and in retributive action on 11th July, a British vessel The Royal Navy HMS Montrose was harassed by three Iranian vessels in Strait of Hormuz, which later withdrew after repeated warnings by the British vessel.
While the Iranian slug fest with US and its allies continues to keep the region on the edge diplomatic efforts to avoid a devastating conflict in the region continue. French President Macron has sent special envoys to Tehran to calm down tempers while looking for a solution to the current impasse. The United States of America is grudgingly looking towards French diplomatic efforts and direct mediation by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an emissary of President Donald Trump to give another shot to peace efforts. It is worth noting that during PM Abe’s last visit to Iran, a Japanese Oil vessel was targeted in the Strait of Hormuz.
As the diplomatic parley’s between EU and Iran continue which include the creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for trade with Iran by EU; Tehran in a rebuffing move has announced that it is increasing nuclear enrichment beyond the agreed limit of 3.67% stated in JCPOA thus breaching the nuclear agreement. IAEA has also confirmed that Iran has gone beyond the agree enrichment limit. America has reacted alarmingly to these developments stating that Iran was never in complete compliance of the nuclear agreement while Russia has called on Iran to not act with emotions on nuclear enrichment. PM Netanyahu has also weighed in openly stating the Iranian regime and its nuclear/military programme present an imminent danger to the region and the recent events in Gulf of Oman only confirm his belief. Interestingly, the Iranians have called upon the Europeans to make good of the promises in the Nuclear Deal which US has unilaterally violated, in case EU seeks compliance from Iran.
Though Russia has so far reacted cautiously to the current crisis; its reaction stems from a deeper subtext of annoyance over increased Iranian presence in the Syrian conflict which is proving to be a quagmire for it as it is already riddled with western sanctions and a flagging economy. It has been recently reported that Russian backed Syrian forces have been in direct confrontation with Iranian backed militias in Syria’s Al Ghab region of Hama in January 2019; and mid-April 2019 in various parts of Syria using heavy weapons. At least 12 people and 2 IRGC members were killed in confrontations in Deir ez-Zor. Russian and Iranian divergence in Syria stems from various factors; the foremost being US sanctions on Iran that are impeding détente between US and Russia. Russia is looking to offer a political settlement in Syria to US which Iran has repeatedly impeded much to the ire of the Kremlin. While Russia wants to strengthen its hold over Syria by strengthening Bashar Al Assad; the Iranians want to take control of areas freed from Daesh to keep Syria subservient to Tehran’s influence. Russia is hence looking for a quick political settlement in Syria to solidify its gains while getting détente with the West and consequent sanction relief. The Trump Administration is equally desirous of having its ‘Nixon moment’ with Russia to isolate China, the new bogeyman and challenger in chief to the American built global order.
We had foreseen these events months back in our piece on Trump’s pull-out from Iran Nuclear Deal. America will need Russian assistance for upping the ante on China and Iran is proving to be an impediment in Syria; hampering a solution. The Russians have hence tacitly increased their coordination with Israel with Israeli Air Force regularly carrying out airstrikes in Syria targeting Hezbollah and IRGC bases, arms and ammunitions. Russia is also exerting influence on Syrian President Assad to reduce the influence of Mahr Al Assad by a comprehensive restructuring of Syrian Armed forces purging all pro-Iranian elements in the Syrian military. Maher Al Assad was coordinating with Iranian forces for new missile production lines, supplying Hezbollah with Fateh-110 and Golan 1000 shells. Many of these bases, store houses have been destroyed in the Israeli airstrikes in Syria. With the removal of former Defense minister, General Fahd Jassem al Freji and replacement with General Ali Ayyoub, Russia is ensuring the weakening of Maher Al Assad’s hold over Fourth Armoured Division and the military.
After President Bashar Al Assad got the whiff of his brother’s Mahr’s activities in undermining him with Iran, the Russian backed purge has claimed many officers in Presidential Palace, a notable name being Colonel Mazen Ghadoun 9heading information office) apart from arresting and executing many others. Russian backed Syrian forces also arrested 12 Lebanese backed Hezbollah members in two Shiite villages in Syrian province of Homs on 29th April 2019. The Russian efforts to cut and arrest the expanding Iranian influence are not limited to Syria but also include Yemen where Russia is looking to expand its co-operation with UAE backed Southern Forces against the Iranian backed Houthis. We have elaborated this extensively in our piece on the conflict in Yemen. Russia is also co-ordinating with Saudis in an OPEC+ formulation to manage Oil prices making it a lucrative option for many US allies in the region.
Russia will not rock relations with Iran in the foreseeable future as it would want Iran to remain under its sphere of influence and not expand beyond a point. Simultaneously, Russia is leveraging its influence over Iran with US & its allies to get the sanctions off its back. Iran is equally demonstrating its power and superiority in the region showing EU who’s the boss. Thus, the crisis in Persian Gulf is creating an interesting paradox between two battle-hardened regimes vying to become the kingmaker.
- Gulf of Oman tanker attacks: What we know https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-middle-east-48627014
- The drone Iran shot down was a $220m surveillance monster https://www.wired.com/story/iran-global-hawk-drone-surveillance/amp
- Iran nuclear deal: Government announces enrichment breach https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-middle-east-48899243
- Russia Curbs Maher al-Assad’s Influence https://syrianobserver.com/EN/features/49024/russia-curbs-maher-al-assads-influence.html
- Utilizing Pressure Points: the Consequences of Russian Escalation Against Iran in Syria https://rasanah-iiis.org/english/monitoring-and-translation/reports/utilizing-pressure-points-the-consequences-of-russian-escalation-against-iran-in-syria/
- Is Iran bargaining chip for Russia in relations with the US? https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/07/russia-iran-us-bargaining-chip.html