04 July 2019

US, Iran and EU in the middle

Claudiu Nebunu

US and Iran’s tensions have escalated in the past week, and their actions started to get a military turnaround. Iran decided to partially withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and calls on other participating countries to implement their commitments within 60 days, otherwise it will completely withdraw. Washington has dislocated additional personnel and techniques in the region. A mysterious attack on several oil tankers in Hormuz Strait’s area has worsen the situation. Who did it? American investigators are pointing Tehran, but no evidence has yet been provided. The incident raises concerns and unplanned encounters between American and European diplomacy officials. Are these attempts to defuse or get support for military measures? Hard to say, however, the situation has indeed became explosive ...and a conflict is just one sparkle away…

Image source: Mediafax

Ready for war?
The White House has dislocated B-52 strategic bombers at the US base in Qatar, a USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and the USS Arlington warship, equipped with a Patriot missile system, in the Persian Gulf, to counter Tehran’s possible actions.

Washington’s Administration also issued more warnings regarding Persian Gulf region’s maritime traffic, stating that there is a risk of sabotage off United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) coasts. Moreover, the State Department ordered, on Wednesday (15th of May) that government’s employees from non-essential staff, who are working on US diplomatic missions in Iraq, should leave this country.

The “proper” day for the first strikes

After intense diplomatic efforts, after military mobilization, wars are suddenly starting, early in the morning ... In the modern era, all TV channels are interrupting their broadcasts for breaking news and people are watching the events live... There is no new scenario and, even if battles’ start can be anticipated, it always raises emotion and surprise... because, maybe, there was still a hope.

Monday morning, 13th of May, could have been that perfect moment ... to trigger massive confrontations in the Middle East (MO). The day before, on Sunday morning, four oil tankers (one displaying Norwegian flag, one belonging to UAE and two to Saudi Arabia) were sabotage actions’ targets near Fujairah UAE port, where there is oil’s storage capacity expansion activity (Fujairah port would have world's largest oil storage facility, up to 14 million oil barrels).

There were no victims, however, Saudi Arabia stated that its oil tankers were “seriously damaged”.

The incident happened near Hormuz Strait, whose security was assumed by Iran, when the Washington-Tehran relations are extremely tense due to US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) JCPOA) and the increasing pressure on Iran to give up the ballistic program and change its behavior on certain foreign policy issues.

While Saudi Arabia and UAE did not explicitly blame Iran, the main adversary, US officials, have suspected Tehran’s regime. But Iran called the attack as "terrifying" and asked for incident’s full investigation.

Attack’s nature is not clear yet. US military investigators, who were sent to investigate the incident, are considering the hypothesis that Iran or its groups have used explosives to attack those four ships. Experts have found large holes in oil tankers’ coils (the outer shell of ship's body), and think that they were caused by explosive charges, said the Associated Press, quoting an anonymous official. US investigators have not explained how they linked Iran and Sundays’ attacks and, for now, no evidence revealed that Tehran’s regime has planned and executed the sabotage.

In BBC’s analysis related to the incident, it is stated that compared to previous attacks against USS Cole (2000), Limburg (2002) and more recent offshore attacks against Yemeni coast, the four oil giants’ damage in the Gulf region were minimal. There were no oil spills, fires and no casualties.

However, the moment the incident happened is both suspicious and dangerous, and those who made attacked were aware of Persian Gulf’s increasing tensions, of US force’ deployment in the region. Also, the attackers may have deliberately tried to intensify these tensions in order to trigger a conflict.

And the danger is still at the corner…

Two days after the oil tankers’ attacks (Tuesday, 14th of May), two oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia were attacked with explosive drones, said the Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid al-Falih. The minister described the attack as "an act of terrorism targeting worldwide oil supply". The two pumping stations belong to Aramco Saudi Company, and the attack forced the state oil company to cancel its operations, to estimate what Falih described as "limited damage".  

The attacked facilities, placed in Afif and Dawadmi, are linked to a pipeline carrying oil from oilfields in Eastern Saudi Arabia, to Red Sea’s Yanbu harbor.

This attack is the second executed on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure and will, most likely, escalate region’s tensions. Previously, a TV channel owned by Houthi insurgents in Yemen, backed by Iranians, talked about drone attacks against facilities in Saudi Arabia, without actually specifying attacks’ targets or timing.

How did they get here…

US President, Donald Trump, adopted an intransigent approach against Iran, since his mandate started, including by criticizing Tehran from UN’s table, by US’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran and by re-imposing sanctions targeting both Iran and countries that had trade deals with this country, as well as through the aggressive clear dialogue with President Hassan Rouhani.

 Last month (April), Washington increased the pressure against Tehran, announcing that all countries that would import oil from Iran would be subjected to US’s sanctions. Donald Trump has decided that there will no longer be countries exempt from these once the current exceptions expire in May.

The American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has stated that this measure’s purpose is leaving Iran without the “funds it used to destabilize Middle East for ten years”, and determine Iran to act like a “normal country”. Pompeo added that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates agreed to ensure the necessary oil so that to make up for the Iranian oil disappearance from the market.

Hence, the Iranian authorities threatened that they may try to block the oil transport that passes through the Hormuz Strait. Although it can hardly be implemented and it is dangerous in terms of consequences, Hormuz Strait’s closure is one of the strongest leverages that Teheran’s regime has (it transits from 20 up to 40% of world’s oil through the Hormuz Strait, according to different statistics).
Furthermore, a week ago (8th, Wednesday,), one year after US’s withdrawal from the Treaty and sanctions’ reintroduction, Iran decided to cancel some commitments’ implementation, assumed in the 2015 document, but without completely withdrawing from it. The National Security Supreme Council has decided that Iran will no longer limit its heavy water and enriched uranium supply, as committed in 2015, and gave 60 days to the rest of five countries (Germany, China, France, UK and Russia) to make commitments operational, particularly in oil and banking fields, warning that they would, otherwise, not apply other commitments.

 The decision was brought to the attention of countries’ ambassadors that continued the treaty (Germany, China, France, Britain and Russia), through a letter from Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani.   

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that "the measures taken by the US, in particular one year and before withdrawing from the Treaty, were clearly intended to cause the application of this agreement to be discontinued." However, Zarif insisted, "Iran does not withdraw completely" from that agreement, and the measures adopted by Tehran correspond to a right left to the participating parties in case of violation by another party.

European Union and member states involved in the Iranian nuclear treaty (France, Germany and United Kingdom) have ensured that they will continue to follow the Treaty, but they will not take "ultimatums" from Tehran. "We are refusing any ultimatum and we will evaluate Iran's compliance with its nuclear commitments," said Thursday (9th of May) in a joint communiqué, signed by their foreign ministers and EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy security policy, Federica Mogherini.

It also highlights "the full attachment to maintaining and fully implementing the Treaty, an essential achievement in the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture that is in the interest of everyone's security," calling on Iran to refrain from any escalation. The signatories reiterated their firm commitments in the Treaty, "especially in terms of lifting sanctions for the benefit of the Iranian people," in which they "express regret that the United States has again imposed sanctions after withdrawing from the Treaty."

And here comes the concern…

This week’s tensions escalation reached a point whereat any spark (whether accidental or provoked) can trigger a large-scale confrontation. Sunday morning’s incident could have started a war, but it could have also raised involved actors’ awareness on situation’s seriousness.

A day later (Monday), Mike Pompeo visited Brussels to discuss "urgent matters" with European leaders and, in particular, the Iranian case issue. The State Department did not specify what meetings were scheduled for Pompeo's agenda, announcing only meetings with France, Great Britain and Germany’s representatives.

Initially, US diplomacy’s chief had wenr to Moscow to discuss with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, the developments in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, as well as Moscow and Washington‘s bilateral relations. The meeting was postponed for the next day, at Sochi.

Also on Monday, an EU Foreign Affairs Council was held in Brussels. Foreign ministers from United Kingdom and Germany have showed concern over the United States and Iran’s tensions, which, according to the British minister, could "involuntarily" degenerate into a military confrontation.

"We are concerned about increasing tensions in the region," said German Minister, Heiko Maas, after a separate meeting with Mike Pompeo. British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and French homologue, Jean-Yves Le Drian, also had separate meetings with US’s Secretary of State.

Federica Mogherini stressed that EU fully supports the nuclear agreement with Iran, while noting that she was briefed, the previous night, bout US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s, unannounced visit to Brussels, but did not confirm a meeting with him.

"All in all, we do not want a war with Iran," said Pompeo, on Tuesday evening, during a press conference held in Sochi with his Russian homologue, Sergey Lavrov, before seeing President Putin. The Russian response came immediately, through Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov: "We can hardly talk about any insurance: obviously there is a tendency towards further escalation", who also pointed out that "he regrets Iran’s decisions", but “understands that Iran has made these decisions voluntarily, as response to pressure”. "And, in fact, US’s actions are the ones that are provoking Iran", concluded Peskov.

Irreconcilable stances

Trump has promised, since the presidential campaign, to withdraw the country from the Iranian nuclear agreement, "US’s worst agreement ever", as he named it. He kept his promise and withdrew the US from the Agreement, in May 2018, pressuring the Iranian regime to accept a global treaty with Washington. Mike Pompeo listed several conditions that Tehran should respect, in order to get a treaty, including Iranian nuclear activities’ complete cessation, the end of the ballistic missile production program, and Iran and its allies’ withdrawal from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Something that Teheran is, indeed, refusing…

The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, called on the Iranian political structures to join forces to pass this “unexampled war in our Islamic history”.

The nuclear agreement allowed Iran get rid of some international sanctions, but US’s re-imposition deeply affects the economy and trade relations with other signatory countries of the agreement. The oil exports’ ban, vital to Iran, could be a red line for Teheran’s regime...

In fact, Tehran wants a get back to the situation prior to US sanctions’ reintroduction - rise barriers to Iranian banking and oil sales.

Something that Washington does not accept without Teheran complying with the required conditions…

UE- stake and risks

Regardless of Trump’s determination to pressure Iran, even risking a military confrontation, it is also noteworthy EU's position. No details have been published on Pompeo's discussions with European countries officials, who are involved in the Treaty, but there are two possibilities: either awareness of the extremely dangerous situation and asking support for deforestation or an attempt to get European support for US strategy implementation.

EU reiterated its confidence in Nuclear Treaty’s effectiveness as a method to increase the cooperation with Iran. Europeans are calling on reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to which Iran has honored its commitments. Regarding the ballistic program, in February, the European Council urged Teheran to refrain from such activities, especially from ballistic missile launches, which are at odds with UN’s Security Council Resolution no. 2231.

The nuclear treaty with Iran is a major economic and strategic stake for EU. Raising the economic sanctions against Iran would open up the Iranian market for European companies, especially as Iranian gas and oil supply would reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia. And oil exports are crucial to Iran.  

A shift in EU's orientation towards US's maximum pressure strategy, which is primarily targeting at changing Tehran's behavior in some foreign files, would be more risky. Firstly, the internal destabilization and regime change, with unforeseen consequences, alike other Middle East countries (who will come to power? What if the country turns into a non-governed territory?). Also, there if refugees flux risk, following Syria and Libya’s model. And, last but not least, the risk of a war.

War‘s spectrum seems to be the scariest... Maybe Teheran is also counting on this. Given the current situation, any spark (accidental or provoked) can trigger it ...