All Eyes on the Strait of Hormuz

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 15, 2019

The reported sabotage of several oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz has done more than raise global anxiety over oil prices. It has also increased the possibility of a military conflict between the United States, which has beefed up its military assets in the area, and Iran, which the United States and its regional allies suspect might be involved. The dangerous escalation is occurring in the context of Washington’s threat of sanctions against countries importing oil from Iran. Regional observers argue that U.S. pressure, along with a recent chill in relations between Tehran and the major European powers, should serve as a clear signal to Iran’s leadership to change course. Judging from the rhetoric coming out of Tehran as well as this week’s targeting of the oil tankers, it seems unlikely, at least for the moment, that the ayatollahs are planning to blink first.


Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Camelia Entekhabifard makes the case that the real aim of the U.S. sanctions is to get the Iranians to the negotiating table, something which she argues may be unlikely: “No one in the region, or in Iran or the U.S., wants this to develop into conflict, as everyone understands the consequences of such a move, but it seems all these sanctions come from a plan Trump has to finally make the ayatollahs sit down and talk. However, millions of Iranians are squeezed between the two sides and they are losing their hope of a positive outcome…. Now it is up to the Iranian regime, as Trump looks sincere and ready to stand by his actions. But it will be a hard task for him to get the ayatollahs to accept talks after they have shown so much resistance.”

That point is also made in this recent Khaleej Times editorial, which criticizes Iran’s unwillingness to change course both over its nuclear ambitions and its involvement in the region: “Times are hard, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted. However, instead of extending an olive branch to the U.S. and showing earnestness in holding talks with the Donald Trump administration, the Rouhani regime has called for unity among the various political factions of the country. The seemingly moderate leader has failed to appreciate the power of dialogue and the need to address concerns of the neighbors…. Fear and suspicion sowed by Iran have not helped so far, perhaps it should try building peaceful alliances with regional players for once. The threat of nuclear proliferation is among the greatest risks the world faces. Denuclearization of Iran is important for the region to feel secure, and for the stability in the Middle East.”

Iran’s hegemonic ambitions are the topic of another editorial, this time published by Jordan Times, which laments “Iran’s aggressive and assertive policies in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There is a growing fear in the Middle East that Iran seeks to extend its hegemony across the region, and this policy has caused legitimate concerns among many states in the area. Tehran needs to assure the countries of the region that it has no policy to extend its influence across the area, not only by word, but also by deed. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, especially against the backdrop of Tehran’s role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel believes that, unlike previous presidents, Mr. Trump’s heavy-handed approach to international relations makes him a difficult and unpredictable interlocutor, with the result  that “Iran has lost its ability to make initiatives in the thorny relations. The administration has moved to the offensive as if it were seeking to correct the mistakes made in the previous administration. Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal signed by Obama was a major development, especially after it turned out that Iran could not seek refuge in European promises…. Iran lost the keys to the initiative in the crisis. The sanctions are painful. Inciting a dispute to reshuffle the papers seems dangerous. Waiting for the end of Trump’s mandate is costly, especially if US economic figures continue to boost his ambition for a second term.”

But the United States is not the only critic Iran has to deal with. Tehran appears to also have been blindsided by recent criticism from Europe. In an op-ed for Tehran Times, Mohammad Homaeifar argues that Iran should be wary of “Germany, France and Britain. If the Iranian Foreign Ministry don’t take this action seriously, the European troika will adopt an even more offensive approach…. [I]t is more than clear that the challenge between Iran and European troika on Iran’s missile activity will reach a critical point in coming months, and Iran can never win this argument unless it stands firmly on upholding its strategic boundaries and limits. By abandoning these limits, U.S. and Europe will succeed in isolating Iran in international arena and especially in western Asia.”

But according to The National’s Damien McElroy, Iran’s difficult relationship with the European countries is a result of Iran’s failure to take advantage of the thaw in relations and unwillingness to play a constructive role in the region: “The revamp failed because Iran blew the chance to change its role on the international stage. The country is seen as part of the problem in Yemen. It played an outsized role in events in Syria, but is now marginalized in the reconciliation talks – both those led by Russia and those led by the UN – because of its sectarian bias and links to the regime of Bashar Al Assad. On the global stage, Iran continues to misjudge its position with Europe. The ground is shifting markedly against any more concessions to Tehran, just when Iran needs them most…. European nations are increasingly exasperated by regional concerns over missiles targeting Riyadh and bellicosity over the Strait of Hormuz shipping lanes. There is also recognition of the need to align policy with the US as the smoke clears from the original meltdown of transatlantic ties.”

Iran’s bellicosity has also drawn the ire of the Turkish government, a point made by Turkish observer Omid Shokri Kalehsar in this Daily Sabah op-ed: “Iran, without solving its problem with the West over human right issues and missile tests, will not be able to attract foreign energy firms and financial capabilities. Without foreign investment Iran will not be able to produce more oil and gas to export to neighbors such as Turkey and the world energy market. Without active energy diplomacy and regional foreign policy, it will be possible for Iran to lose its share and role in regional energy markets such as Turkey…. The Iranian people will be more affected by the U.S. decision. The U.S. did not extend its waiver to major Iran oil buyers and it is likely that Iran’s biggest customers, mainly China and India, will look to Saudi Arabia.”

Despite this sustained criticism of Iran’s leadership and its actions in the region, there is still no consensus about how to deal with Tehran. This editorial by the Saudi Gazette, a fierce critic of the Iranian regime, suggests that rather than pushing for “regime change,” the United States should encourage the creation of a homegrown opposition movement: “If Trump has any idea that the ayatollahs can somehow be dealt some fatal blow, he is plain wrong. The Americans should have learned by now that attempting to force through regime-change does not work. The only people who can get rid of the regime in Tehran are the Iranians themselves… The ayatollahs and their Revolutionary Guard, who are guilty of wholesale violent interference in the Arab world, will not be chased from power by US cruise missiles. Rather they will be ousted by an Iranian population fed up with being exploited, pauperized and shunned by the outside world because of the crimes of their government.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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