Shu Meng Source
Since the US announced it will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May, a vortex of tensions in the Persian Gulf threatens to suck down peace as Washington's sanctions hobble the Iranian economy. The White House has even threatened to scupper Iran's oil exports as Tehran accuses it of "economic terrorism."
Two recent incidents have further aggravated tensions between the two arch foes. In early July, British overseas territory Gibraltar's authority impounded Iran's oil tanker Grace 1 in early July. Iran retaliated by seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19. Tehran clearly said that the British operation came at US request, warning what Britain did was "very cheap, wrong and a mistake."
The second reason for heightened tensions is Iran's claims on July 22 that it arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly spying for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Tehran accused the CIA of setting up shell companies as a cover to approach Iranians and lure them to work for it by promising US visas, jobs and money. Trump used Twitter to dismiss the Iranian assertion, calling it "just more lies." But given the sensitive timing, the incident has further intensified tensions in the Gulf region.
The US-Iran confrontation is evolving into a clash between the Western world and Iran after the two incidents. In particular, the seizure of the British oil tanker triggered all European countries' criticism against Iran, before which Europe, unlike the US, was scrambling to save the Iran nuclear deal. A German foreign ministry spokesman said recently that Teheran's move will "undermine all ongoing efforts to find a way out of the current crisis."
The US has been sparing no effort to portray Iran as a major threat to regional security. On July 19, Washington briefed more than 60 nations on its plan to form a multinational coalition to purportedly ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf region. It was reported by the Associated Press the same day that "with Iranian military threats in mind, the US is sending American forces, including fighter aircraft, air defense missiles and likely more than 500 troops, to a Saudi air base." However, Washington's policy of applying maximum pressure to force Iran to bow, further provoked Tehran. The US and Iran have fallen into a cycle of vicious wrangling.
The two countries have been locked in a stalemate: It is hard for them to return to negotiations, but neither wants war.
On one hand, the two sides have different opinions on the preconditions for getting back to talks. Unless there is a strong third-party mediator, it is hard to hold talks. But Europe, which is the most likely mediator, is unable to bring the two sides back to the negotiation table after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Besides, both Iran and the US can benefit from the current stalemate. For the US, an Iran threat is useful to unite allies in the Middle East and safeguard US influence in the region. For Iran, a tough response against the US and Europe can help the regime divert attention from economic and social problems.
Both Iran and the US don't want tensions to escalate into a direct military confrontation. Iranian spokesman Ali Rabiei said that there are diplomatic solutions to the current crisis with London. The US waived sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, granting him visa to attend a UN meeting in New York earlier July. This indicates that a military conflict is in no one's interest.
Moreover, Western allies of the US are cautious in confronting Iran so as not to let the situation snowball into a military confrontation. UK under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to undergo a cabinet reshuffle, making military action against Iran more unlikely. France has clearly said it does not intend to increase military presence in the Gulf region.
Noticeably, although neither side wants war while both are trying to strike a balance to maintain a status quo in the region, with escalating tensions, the Persian Gulf has been on the brink of danger.
Shu Meng Source is an assistant research fellow at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.