With the exception of the (also surprising) drama around the recently launched impeachment process against the U.S. president, which is an American internal affair that has global ramifications, the main multilateral hotspot remains that of the Middle East, where an unprecedented spectacle was staged in mid-September, in the form of the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities using as many as 17 attack drones and cruise missiles.
Where they were launched from has yet to be determined precisely – Yemeni rebels have claimed responsibility – but the chief suspect (so far without proof) is Iran, which has led to it being accused of committing an “act of war” by the head of the diplomacy of the world’s most powerful country.
Whatever actually happened, this attack threatened to escalate the crisis, caused disruption in the world oil market and threatened to spark a wider fire of conflict, only to show that none of the players that made belligerent statements was really keen on going to war.
Instead, America opted for the tactic of “maximum pressure” on Iran, stepping up its “blunt” soft-war weapons of economic sanctions. In this context, the missile strike on Saudi Arabia was Tehran’s response, which also had the effect of applying maximum pressure.
This crisis was actually triggered in May 2018 by the U.S. president with his decision – whether due to his aversion to multilateral arrangements, pressure from his allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Israel) and “hawks” in his own circles – to revoke America’s signature to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was initially signed in July 2015 by both the U.S. and Iran, but also other members of the UN Security Council (the UK, France, Russia and China), plus Germany.
Paradoxically, Iran’s nuclear programme began in 1957 with the assistance of the United States, which provided it with its first nuclear reactor
The deal was the result of painstaking negotiations, the outcome of which was a compromise: Iran committed to halting its nuclear weapons development programme and surrendering the nuclear fuel it produced and for sanctions to be lifted in return.
Trump justified his withdrawal from the JCOPA in the belief that it was the case of a bad deal made by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and that he – as a “deal-making artist” – would do a better job, but he didn’t find any understanding for this move either internationally or among his domestic public.
European co-signatories have resisted U.S. pressure to also withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal for almost a year and a half, while Iran has only threatened to renew its progress towards building a nuclear bomb, as a kind of “insurance policy” patented by North Korea.
This restraint, however, is ever less sustainable, both due to the increasingly unbearable sanctions that are plaguing Iran’s economy – a country of 82 million inhabitants that once exported 2.8 million barrels of oil per day and today exports less than a million – and due to the increasingly sharp political rhetoric being exchanged between Washington and Tehran.
Trump’s instincts, which he relies on more than strategic and intelligence analysis, discourage him from waging a war that would inevitably be complicated, lengthy and costly. He is more inclined to theatrical gestures, like the political events he staged with his meetings with the North Korean leader, but the problem is that no Iranian leader is willing to have his picture taken with Trump unless he first secures something in return.
It remains to be seen who will blink first, and until then, the stumbling and blundering in the Gulf will continue.