A collision of events - a misjudgment in the Persian Gulf, an attack in Damascus, a visit to Israel, a bomb in Bulgaria - hands militarism a further advantage over diplomacy in the region. The dangers of a sudden escalation are increasing.
By any reasonable diplomatic measure, Iran’s relations with the United States - ( and by extension the European members of the “P5+1” group) - should be tolerably good. There have, after all, been three rounds of high-level negotiations in recent months, and lower-level talks continue. It’s true that progress has been limited, but the very existence of the process - in light of the tensions and distrust that preceded it - might be expected to have improved the situation. Yet this clearly has not happened.
The core ingredient of the standoff is the rooted suspicion on both sides. Tehran has become ever more convinced that Washington is uninterested in reaching any kind of (to it) remotely acceptable deal, and rather is intent on demanding a near-total shutdown of all its nuclear activities.
The Iranians believe that the US is working closely with Israel, especially by means of cyberattacks (such as Stuxnet and Flame) which have been under development for several years. Some recent reports in the American press reinforce this view (see David E Sanger, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran”, New York Times, 1 June 2012). They further hold that Washington's setting of stringent conditions on any diplomatic movement is a ruse to delay the talks until Iran is so weakened (by sanctions as well as cyberwar) that it will effectively surrender to all US demands.
The US in turn sees Iran as being wholly unyielding. The more hawkish elements in Washington attribute this stance to Iran’s attempt to acceleration its nuclear programme while prolonging the talks process and thus reducing the risk in the meanwhile of a unilateral Israeli military strike.
The distrust machine
The two sides (with the US’s western allies reduced to witnesses of their deep confrontation) are thus locked into a deep antagonism. The tone of Hillary Clinton's comments on Iran during her visit to Israel on 16 July 2012, and Binyamin Netanyahu’s following the bombing of Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas on 18 July (in which six people died and thirty-two were injured) is further evidence of the depth of the tensions. The attack occurred exactly eighteen years after the blast at a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 which killed eighty-five people, and has long been blamed on Iran’s ally Hizbollah with close Iranian involvement.
The worsening conflict in Syria is an additional source of polarisation. Bashar al-Assad’s regime, supported by Iran as its main ally, is now seriously under attack as the rebel forces become more potent and effective. The assassination of three high-level figures in a regime stronghold in Damascus on 18 July signals that the conflict is sharpening. Much of the funding for the armed Syrian opposition comes from Saudi Arabia and other western Gulf sources, though western security agencies are also involved. The more al-Assad’s regime is threatenened, the more Iranian interests too are at stake; such a volatile environment, where substantial stocks of chemical weapons exist, creates even more dangerous prospects.
The uncertain and complex situation in Syria could well become further destabilised by the AIM phenomenon - accidents, incidents, mavericks - which can suddenly escalate a crisis into a full-scale war (see “America, Israel, Iran: mediation vs war”, 16 February 2012). But the AIM dynamic applies equally in the Persian Gulf as in Syria - even more so as US forces continue their military build-up and hardline Iranian sources threaten to disrupt the traffic of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
The diplomatic retreat
An incident on 16 July illustrates the point. A 31,000-tonne fleet replenishment oiler in the Persian Gulf, operated by the US military sealift command - the USS Rappahannock - opened fire on a fishing-boat that was deemed an immediate danger. The boat was actually manned by four Indians and two Emiratees; one of the Indians was killed and three were injured. It was certainly no threat.
The US navy said that copious warnings had been given, but the boat's survivors denied this. Whatever the actual sequence, the Rappahannock's crew were all too aware of the attack on the USS Cole by a speedboat in Aden harbour in October 2000 which killed seventeen sailors. Moreover, the ship can carry nearly 160,000 barrels of fuel-oil and aviation-spirit, making it a serious target for any genuine attack.
The multiple connections here are worrying. The United States strongly supports Israel, which is already weighing options over Iran’s nuclear plans and now sees the Burgas attack as requiring a strong response. Tehran is hugely concerned at the possible loss of its partner in Damascus, which Washington (backed by its close Saudi ally, the main supporters of Syria’s rebels) is determined to see gone. Iran also faces increasing pressures as a result of economic sanctions, the continuing enmity of the Saudis, and a US naval consolidation close to its home waters.
No wonder, then, that the relative optimism of March-April 2012, as the Iran-P5+1 diplomatic carousel was getting underway, has almost entirely disappeared. Another perilous period is opening, at the very moment when the United States presidential-election approaches its final three months and thus consumes much of the energy that diplomacy needs. The opportunity for “accidents, incidents or mavericks” to spark an uncontrollable escalation is growing. This is a time for calm minds and maximum diplomatic focus. The chances of either winning through are not good.