Pressure in the Persian Gulf

Originally published in the Silent Noise on June 8, 2019.

In recent months, foreign relations between the United States and its Middle Eastern adversary Iran have taken a turn for the worse. Four years ago, with President Obama and the United Nations’ signing of the landmark nuclear deal, the long-standing tense relationship between the US and Iran seemed to have been eased. However, the change from Obama to Trump’s government here in America has also created a major shift in the United States’ direction in foreign policy concerning the Middle East. Months ago, President Trump announced that the US would be formally withdrawing from the deal set in place months before, which aimed to lessen the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran in exchange for the easing of crippling economic sanctions on the country, calling the deal “a disaster.” Iran responded by announcing that it would no longer abide by the terms of the agreement, sending relations between it and the US into disarray. Since then, the two nations have engaged in a war of words – one that could potentially explode into a real one. Threats from both countries have prompted mobilization of troops to the region, creating tensions between the US and Iran higher than they have been in recent memory. This potential conflict is not solely the fruit of recent hawkish sentiments, but also the result of a buildup of stress in foreign relations which goes back decades.

    In 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born of a coup d’état which overthrew the Shah and installed a theocratic republic. Tensions with the US began almost immediately, as revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held a group of US diplomats hostage for more than a year. From there on, relations didn’t improve for more than thirty years. While an eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq raged on in the Middle East, Iran’s sentiments against the United States increased exponentially. In 1988, violence erupted in the form of Operation Praying Mantis when the US launched naval attacks on Iranian oil platforms. After the war with Iraq ended in ceasefire, US military forces shot down an Iranian commercial airline, killing 290 civilians – an assault the US maintained was an accident. In the years afterwards, the UN imposed sanctions and embargoes which crippled the Iranian economy. After 9/11, President Bush delivered a speech in which he referred to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Onward into the twenty-first century, military intelligence tensions have boomed, with the US conducting surveillance operations and stationing thousands of American troops in surrounding Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps the most crucial catalyst in American fears of apprehension with Iran is their nuclear weapons program, which the United Nations sought to check in the form of the nuclear deal.

    The nuclear deal was the result of diplomacy efforts by world leaders, primarily American President Barack Obama, to soothe fears of a nuclear war with Iran. The nuclear program, according to the United States, has posed a threat to world peace – in a world which has gone to extensive ends to avoid any nuclear conflict since such weapons of mass destruction were first developed. The agreement limited Iran’s ability to process uranium and develop nuclear weapons, enforced by formal inspections of nuclear facilities, in exchange for an end to sanctions which have suffocated the Iranian economy for so many years. The deal was supported by many, but opposed by others, who called it “weak” – particularly the Republican Congress at the word of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another long-time opponent of the deal was Donald Trump, who formally withdrew from the agreement with Iran doing the same in retaliation soon after. This has revived old fears of a military conflict with Iran – but what would such a conflict look like?

    Iran has a large naval presence in the Persian Gulf, the body of water which hugs the country’s coastline as well as that of the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf is a valuable economic zone for the Middle East, with the precious commodity of oil routinely passing through the Strait of Hormuz. As a military conflict with Iran would likely be maritime-based, a naval skirmish would unsettle the global economy, shaking up the oil industry. According to some estimates, a naval barricade in the Gulf could cause a total 30% decrease in world oil exports. As for military force, Iran’s armed forces boast around 900,000 personnel, compared to the US’ 2.2 million, active and reserve. Iran has an arsenal of missiles which poses a threat to Americans stationed around the Middle East, as well as a large and powerful navy. The prospect of such a conflict has been compared to the 2003 Iraq War, but in reality it would be on a much larger scale. Iran has three times the population as Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion, and influence over proxy groups in Kuwait, Yemen, and others that are already a military adversaries of US forces in the Middle East, especially Hezbollah. Thus, casualties of an Iran War – another Gulf War, as it could be attributed – would be much higher. Also, the stakes of war with a nation who is likely constructing an extensive nuclear weapons program in the post-nuclear deal era is astronomically greater than one such is Iraq who likely never had weapons of mass destruction in the first place. Military conflict with Iran would be a devastating, generation-defining war – one which could last for years on end.

    Currently, the President has surrounded himself with mostly anti-Iran advisors, especially John Bolton, a significant figure in the invasion of Iraq earlier in the century. Bolton reportedly drew up a plan to send 120,000 American troops to the Middle East in response to military escalations – a claim the President denied, citing that they would send “more” if the need was presented. As of now, the war is unlikely. Bolton is realistically the only Trump advisor who has shown favor towards a war, and the President has shown an eagerness in the past to part ways with administration officials who oppose him. Thus, unless President Trump takes initiative for war in the Middle East, a conflict reminiscent of the widely unpopular War on Terror in the 2000s, the Iran War will likely not be realized for today.

However, it’s undeniable that relations are tense between the two nations. A storm is brewing in the Persian Gulf – perhaps not total war with Iran, as some would want – but a storm nevertheless.

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