Managing Iran’s Persian Gulf escalation

The Persian Gulf and the narrow straights of Hormuz - vital waterways that have been the site of repeated alleged Iranian attacks on shipping in recent weeks

Update from AIJAC

07/19 #03

In the wake of yet more tensions in the Persian Gulf – including Iran’s seizure of a UAE tanker, and a US claim to have downed an Iranian drone – this Update offers some views and reporting on US and Western efforts to manage that tension.

We lead with David Ignatius, a Washington Post journalist known for his good access to senior officials in all recent US administrations. He says the Trump Administration has adopted a strategy of letting Iran “punch itself out” – that is, not retaliating to Iranian provocations, while organising a multinational effort to protect local shipping and minimise the damage Iran can do. The US is preparing a “knockout punch” if needed, he says, but believes time is on their side as Iran weakens in the face of economic sanctions. For Ignatius’ reading of the what the US Administration and military are trying to do, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Israeli academic expert Eyal Zisser, who argues too much of the international community appears to be ready to accept belligerent Iranian behaviour rather than confront it. He notes that many in both Europe and the US seem wedded to the idea that the JCPOA nuclear deal the Obama Administration orchestrated guaranteed peace and quiet, and therefore current Iranian violence is seen as an understandable response to the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the deal. He argues that this argument misunderstands the nature of the Iranian regime – which he compares to 1939 Japan – and that Iran must be curbed and subdued, not appeased. For his full argument,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer some views on responding to Iranian escalation from Brig. (res.) Jacob Nagel, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, and American Iran analyst Tzvi Kahn. They focus on ways to deal with Iran’s open breaches of its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as part of Teheran’s general strategy of escalation. They suggest that the International Atomic Energy Agency can be pressured to do more to both act on intelligence, such as the nuclear warehouses Israel has exposed, and to call out Iranian noncompliance whenever it occurs, rather than play it down. For the rest of what they have to say, CLICK HERE.

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The U.S. is trying to let Iran punch itself out

David Ignatius

Washington Post, July 16, 2019

This undated photo provided by Iranian state television’s English-language service, Press TV, on July 18, 2019, shows the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels. (Press TV via AP)

MUSCAT, Oman —Here’s the most intriguing fact about Iran’s apparent seizure on Saturday of a small oil tanker about 240 miles northwest of here: Thus far, it has brought only a muted response from the United Arab Emirates, in whose waters the vessel had been operating, and from the United States, which is quietly organizing a multinational effort to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf.

If this were a boxing match, you’d say that the United States is trying to let Iran punch itself out. The United States hasn’t retaliated for several tanker incidents near the Strait of Hormuz over the past two months, or the shoot-down of its surveillance drone, or other provocations. The U.S. military lets Iran keep throwing jabs — while readying a knockout blow if it’s ever needed.

“It’s an international problem, it’s not a United States problem,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, in an interview early Tuesday as he traveled here. He said that any escorting of tankers through the strait should be done by countries that depend on oil from the gulf, with the United States providing reconnaissance and other special tools to enhance what he called “maritime domain awareness.”

McKenzie’s low-key comments, which came after the first news reports had surfaced about Saturday’s disappearance of the tiny tanker Riah into the waters off Iran’s heavily fortified Qeshm Island, seemed to illustrate the broader U.S. strategy of avoiding a direct faceoff with Iran, if possible. The United States has been bolstering its already vast arsenal in the gulf but, thus far, hasn’t used it visibly.

“Our ability to bring forces into the theater has acted to deter” the Iranians from broader actions, McKenzie argued. “We’re in a period right now where they’re sort of recalculating and trying to gauge our intent and our commitment.” The U.S. goal, it seems, is well-armed patience — not responding to provocations but waiting to see what the Iranians do.

This measured U.S. response may be the most notable, if least discussed, aspect of the confrontation with Iran. U.S. planners reckon that time is on their side; Iran gets weaker with every additional month of economic sanctions. Tehran wants to break out of this straitjacket, but lacking diplomatic channels with the United States, it’s choosing to send messages through kinetic force. Yet Iranian leaders know they need to be careful.

Caution is also increasingly evident among gulf Arab nations, such as the UAE, that had been prodding the Trump administration toward confrontation with Iran. Emirati leaders know that a U.S.-led coalition would prevail eventually in a military conflict — but that the gleaming buildings that crowd the 21st-century wonderland of Abu Dhabi and Dubai would be early targets. These jewels of the gulf could become splintered glass.

The UAE’s wary response after the apparent seizure of the tanker was telling. Emirati leaders want de-escalation and a political process with Iran. Another sign of the UAE’s effort to step back from the brink has been the withdrawal of most of its forces from Yemen — a ruinous war that has produced no strategic gain against the Houthi forces that are Iran’s proxies there, but that has brought a humanitarian catastrophe for civilians.

The Emirati withdrawal is a win for good sense and also, it must be said, for the Houthis and Iran. It also suggests cracks in the UAE’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which will keep forces along the Yemen border even as its key ally departs. For Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of this campaign, Yemen has become an increasingly lonely quagmire.

As the United States calibrates its moves in the confrontation with Iran, its greatest potential vulnerability is Iraq, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops could be menaced by Iran-sponsored Shiite militias. The Iraqi government pledges to restrain Tehran’s operatives, but if this crisis escalates, this will be an impossible promise for Baghdad to keep.

The immediate challenge in the gulf is maritime security — and curbing Iranian attacks on shipping. That’s one reason McKenzie made Oman the first stop on a 10-day tour of the region (accompanied by a small press contingent of CBS’s David Martin and me). Oman hosts a Maritime Security Center here that’s the equivalent of an air-traffic control center for shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.

In the U.S. game plan, Oman would be an important partner in a broad, multinational coalition to protect shipping from Iranian hit-and-run operations. The U.S. strategy would be to work with these partners to de-escalate tensions.

Iran has all but begged for a direct confrontation with the United States. So far, the U.S. response correctly has been: No!


Appeasing Iran isn’t an option

It’s possible the world is on a collision course with Iran, but by taking the initiative and adopting an uncompromising approach the breadth and scope of a future conflict can be mitigated and maybe even prevented entirely through deterrence.

by  Prof. Eyal Zisser

Israel Hayom,  Published on  2019-07-16 10:38

In many circles, it has become axiomatic that the JCPOA nuclear deal reached in 2015, whose authors are above, secured peace and quiet, but it is clear that this is not the case.

Early last week Tehran announced its intention to enrich uranium above the level permitted by the nuclear deal to which it is still signed. Over the weekend, soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tried seizing a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. The attack was retaliation for British special forces seizing an Iranian tanker delivering oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions imposed on Damascus, but the wider context is Tehran’s threats to shut down oil exports from Persian Gulf States if American sanctions are not lifted.

Surprisingly, Iran’s belligerence is being accepted by the international community – and countries in our region – with apathy and a shrug of the shoulders. The blatant unwillingness to confront the Iranians could stem from dread of the regional bully menacing its neighbors both near and far. However, voices in the West are also expressing an understanding and even empathy toward Iran, which is perceived as a victim clawing for its life to fend off an aggressor – none other than US President Donald Trump.

In Europe, Russia and even certain circles in the US, it is largely accepted that the nuclear deal signed by previous President Barack Obama successfully secured peace and quiet. In the wake of the nuclear deal, many believed – and still believe – that tensions in the Persian Gulf would subside, and they hoped Iran would subsequently focus on rehabilitating its crumbling economy and endeavor to seek acceptance in the family of nations. Trump, on the other hand, is presented as a crude violator of the nuclear deal who reinstated sanctions and pushed Tehran back to violence and terror.

A similar argument was made 80 years ago, whereby US President Franklin Roosevelt forced the leaders of Japan to attack Pearl Harbor by imposing painful sanctions on the country. But then as now, Iran of today, similar to Japan in December of 1941, isn’t a peace-seeking country but a belligerent regional power. Iran also doesn’t hide its expansionist ambitions, presently focused on the Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran, through Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza and Yemen.

Obama essentially bought time, nothing more, in the hope that during the quiet years – purchased at a high cost – Iran will be appeased and become more moderate, and perhaps even see a regime change. History teaches us, however, that an aggressor can’t be placated with concessions and gestures of goodwill. Indeed, he will seize the first chance he gets to retrogress, having exploited the peaceful period to build his strength. This is aptly illustrated by the traces of radioactive material found by International Atomic agency inspectors in the Iranian warehouse.

It wasn’t Trump who turned Iran into a monster. He didn’t force it on the path of violence and terror, and he isn’t the reason it is trying to conquer the Middle East. Iran’s essence – anchored in the ayatollahs’ fundamentalist and apocalyptic worldview – was established well before Trump entered office.

Iran doesn’t need to be appeased; it has to be curbed and subdued. It’s possible the world is on a collision course with Iran, but by taking the initiative and adopting an uncompromising approach the breadth and scope of a future conflict can be mitigated and maybe even prevented entirely through deterrence.

Trump, incidentally, proposed establishing an international task force to ensure maritime safety in the Persian Gulf. The Americans made a similar proposal on the eve of the Six-day War in 1967, in an attempt to safeguard Red Sea shipping routes to the Gulf of Eilat in southern Israel. But history informs us that only decisive US-led measures, such as the military campaigns against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida or Sadam Hussein, have a chance of succeeding.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.


As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA

BY JACOB NAGEL AND TZVI KAHN

The Hill, 07/16/19

The damaged Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned oil tanker Kokuka Courageous, with the hole believed to have been caused by an Iranian limpet mine last month.

Tensions between Iran and the West continue to escalate. Last week, a British warship thwarted an attempt by Iranian vessels to block the passage of a U.K.-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. A week earlier, British forces seized an Iranian oil tanker near the Mediterranean peninsula of Gibraltar carrying oil, in defiance of European sanctions, to Syria. Meanwhile, Iran continued to violate the 2015 nuclear deal by incrementally exceeding its limits on uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels.

The regime has threatened further breaches if Europe does not find a way to provide relief from U.S. sanctions.

Until recently, Tehran, with encouragement from Europe, Russia, and China, likely hoped that it could outlast President Donald Trump, anticipating that he would lose the 2020 election. But as Iran’s economic plight grows increasingly dire, the regime may have concluded that it cannot risk waiting another year and a half. Consequently, the regime adopted a new strategy of nuclear and military brinksmanship aimed not at starting a war, but at testing U.S. resolve, strengthening Iranian deterrence, and blackmailing the United States and Europe to gain sanctions relief.

America must not be intimidated. Instead, it should intensify its maximum pressure campaign. The Trump administration should increase sanctions on Iran even further, targeting key nodes in the business empire of Iran’s supreme leader. In so doing, Washington can present Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with a choice: Either renegotiate the nuclear deal, on our terms, or risk the collapse of Iran’s economy and possibly your regime. The United States should also highlight Iran’s repeated violations of the 2015 nuclear accord, thereby discrediting Tehran’s attempts to portray Washington as the instigator of the crisis.

The weakness of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lies at the root of ongoing hostilities. In exchange for temporary, limited restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, the agreement provided Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, which the regime used to finance its military adventurism throughout the Middle East. In particular, the regime deployed thousands of troops to Syria, fueling the atrocities of dictator Bashar Assad and posing a direct threat to Israel. Tehran has also armed Lebanon’s Hezbollah with game changing precision-guided munitions, which enable the terrorist organization to strike Israeli targets with pinpoint accuracy.

At the same time, Tehran has exploited the JCPOA’s vague language to flout the accord’s intent. For example, the deal allows for the reimposition of sanctions on Iran only in the event of “significant non-performance,” but the JCPOA fails to define the term “significant.” The regime has exploited this ambiguity to commit incremental violations without consequence. In part for this reason, Washington, despite clear evidence of Iranian misconduct, has had a hard time convincing Europe, Russia, and China that Tehran has defied the JCPOA. In fact, on Monday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, herself said she does not regard Iran’s latest violations as “significant” enough to constitute a breach of the deal.

This is why America should urge the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, to strengthen its inspections of suspicious sites where Iran previously engaged in illicit nuclear activity, and to publish clearly its findings. Even without the JCPOA, Tehran still bears a legal obligation to provide access to any site in Iran. In the 1970s, Iran signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, pursuant to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, requiring Tehran to declare all nuclear material in the country. The Additional Protocol, a voluntary amendment to the CSA that Tehran signed in 2003, provides further mechanisms for the IAEA to investigate undeclared sites.

Israel’s recent discovery of two clandestine facilities in Iran heightens the urgency of these mandates. In 2018, Israel announced that the Mossad conducted a raid of a warehouse in Tehran, removing more than 100,000 files documenting Iran’s past efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The archive identifies additional nuclear facilities, equipment, and activities previously unknown to the IAEA — a violation of Tehran’s CSA commitment to declare all nuclear material. Accordingly, the archive exposes shortcomings in the IAEA’s efforts, suggesting that covert nuclear activity, especially in the weaponization arena, may continue today.

Later in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed that Israel found another warehouse in Tehran, this time containing actual nuclear equipment and material that Iran had not declared — another violation of Iran’s CSA. According to recent media reports, an IAEA visit to the second warehouse months later uncovered traces of radioactive material. However, satellite imagery shows that Iran had begun to empty the site prior to Israel’s disclosure, leaving possible gaps in the IAEA’s knowledge.

Washington must press the IAEA to respond more quickly to new information. Any infraction of Iran’s nuclear commitments, however minor, should prompt the IAEA to declare the regime in noncompliance. The IAEA can and must do what the JCPOA has failed to ensure: identifying and declaring clear Iranian violations. Europe must cease ignoring or minimizing Iran’s violations and obfuscation for the sake of preserving the JCPOA.

Ultimately, Washington must make Tehran understand that it can receive sanctions relief only by negotiating a new agreement that addresses the JCPOA’s flaws. A new deal, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated in a landmark speech last year, should include tougher provisions that unambiguously prevent Iran from engaging in all three stages of nuclear weapons development — fissile materials, weaponization, and means of delivery. Likewise, the deal must require Iran to halt its campaign of aggression throughout the Middle East.

To be sure, Washington and Jerusalem must still prepare for the possibility that Tehran will further escalate its military and nuclear operations rather than return to the negotiating table. In that case, all options should remain on the table. Ultimately, if a confrontation proves necessary, the United States and Israel will be far better off facing an isolated, economically crippled Iran today than waiting as Iran consolidates its regional influence and continues its dash toward a nuclear weapon.

Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and a former national security advisor (acting) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is currently a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at FDD.