Stormy Straits Ahead?

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International attention is beginning to focus on the Persian Gulf, and Red Sea areas since Saudi Arabia suspended Red Sea oil shipments earlier this week following attacks on two of its oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The cntentious rhetoric coming out of Tehran of late, along with its open support of the Houthi rebels, has flared US-Iranian tensions, and contributed to the unease. As the prospect of the US sanctions against Iran being reinstituted in the near future grows, Iran’s next move could very well be an attempt to deter Washington from that course of action by way of thinly-veiled economic blackmail.

Since the outbreak of war in Yemen, the Bab el Mandeb Strait has become a highly vulnerable chokepoint for oil shipments, and commerce. In October, 2016 a UAE ship was attacked by Houthi rebels in the strait. Two weeks later, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against US Navy warships in the area. The missiles were defeated by defensive countermeasures and SAM fire. In response, US warships launched cruise missile strikes on Houthi radar sites in rebel-controlled territory. These sites had enabled the rebels to track shipping in the strait and provided essential targeting data for Houthi attacks.  Although the Houthi missile attacks were unsuccessful, the action in October, 2016 emphasized how vulnerable civilian-flagged merchant ships, and tankers become when transiting the Bab el Mandeb.

Now, the prospect of renewed Houthi attacks in the straits, as well as the recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, are reminding the world once again how vital these two chokepoints are to the global economy. Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea rattled oil markets and contributed to a 3-day rise in oil prices. A potential major disruption in the Bab el Mandeb is manageable, however. A similar suspension of oil shipments through Hormuz would deliver even more severe ramifications to the global economy. Quite frankly, even the threat of a Hormuz closure would likely be enough to crash oil markets, and lead to an economic domino effect.

Iran has long understood the value of the strait to the world economy, and its own geopolitical interests. It has attempted to use the Strait of Hormuz as a bargaining chip in the past, most notably during the Tanker War phase of its conflict with Iraq. This led to the US to initiate Operation Earnest Will in 1987. Earnest Will consisted of Kuwaiti oil tankers being reflagged, and escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by US Navy warships. Despite a few setbacks, Earnest Will was largely successful, however, it did lead to clashes between the US Navy and Iranian forces. Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of these skirmishes, and saw the destruction of 50% of Iran’s operational naval fleet at US hands.

Iran’s leadership has to remember Operation Praying Mantis, as well as US Navy action in the Bab el Mandeb in 2016, as it considers it’s next move. An attempt at economic blackmail now will surely bring about a US military response of some type. Tehran’s recent threats, and rhetoric was calculated to force the United States to seriously reconsider its intent to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately for Iran, it is not dealing with the Obama administration any longer. President Trump has taken strong stance against Iran, having already removed the US from the JCOPA. He is now pressuring US allies not to purchase Iranian oil, a move that is likely contributing to the current Iranian discomfiture.

Over the past two days, the fears of US sanctions being placed on Iran have been joined by speculation in some circles that a US military attack against Iran might be in the works. Pre-emptive US action against Iran is not probable in the near future, although if a situation develops that sees Iran support Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or should Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz, all bets are off the table. In either case, a US military response is not only probable, it is essentially guaranteed.

 

Sunday 11 June, 2017 Update: Kuwaiti Mediation Makes Headway

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Kuwait’s attempt to mediate the regional crisis involving Qatar and some of its neighbors is bearing fruit.  Today, Kuwait announced that Qatar is ready to sit down and listen to the grievances and claims of its fellow Gulf States, and Egypt.  The crisis began when several Arab nations announced they are severing diplomatic ties with the tiny emirate over Qatar’s alleged support of select terrorist groups, some of which are backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the effort, closed its border with Qatar and sealed off air, sea, and land contact, essentially isolating the smaller nation. Since last Monday, Qatar has begun to feel the pinch of the imposed isolation. The Qatari stock market has fallen 8% on fears of food, medicine, and other goods shortages coming in the near future if the crisis continues. Qatari Airlines, the largest air carrier in the region has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have taken similar actions against it.

As last week went on, the rift appeared to deepen. Qatar remained defiant, refuting the Saudi claims and not making any moves which could be construed as admitting guilt. From outside the region, a number of nations urged caution and offered to serve as mediators to bring both sides to the table. It is best, however, that Kuwait’s offer is the one being acted upon. This dispute is largely ‘in-house’ and should be resolved by the Gulf states. Kuwait’s first attempt at mediation last week failed. However, with the crisis showing no signs of ending in the near future, Qatar is using Kuwait’s second attempt to gain some breathing room. The fact that it is willing to sit down and hold discussions is a step towards an eventual reconciling the broken relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and other nations.

The world has taken notice of the situation and concern is growing. The consensus is that a swift end to the situation is beneficial for all involved parties, especially before an outside nation attempts to use the crisis to its own benefit. Iran is the first nation that comes to mind. However, Turkey is another nation that has made alarming moves, especially its very vocal support of Qatar. If the second Kuwaiti mediation falls apart, do not be surprised if Turkish support becomes more substantial in the coming days.

Tuesday 6 June, 2017 Update: Saudi Arabia’s Move Was A Long Time Coming

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It is evident that the Saudi Arabian-led isolation of Qatar has been a long time in the making. Qatar’s funding of select extremist groups over the years was hardly a secret in the Arab world. The Saudis resented Qatar for the hypocrisy and discord of its policies: Contributing to the fight against ISIS on one hand, yet providing financial support to extremist groups such as the one operating in eastern Saudi Arabia on the other. The linchpin of a diplomatic effort against Qatar has always been the United States. Washington’s reaction to a quarrel amongst some of its closest allies had to be factored into any action taken on the part of Riyadh.

During the years of the Obama presidency, the Saudis pointed the finger at Qatar’s complicity again and again. King Abdullah, and then his successor King Salman made informal, but impassioned requests for America’s blessing, or at the very least its tacit approval for a move against Qatar. For eight years the Obama administration rejected the requests. The issues of US allies in the region were unceremoniously placed on the back burner as Washington sought a nuclear deal with Iran at all costs.

The new administration in Washington has not been unreceptive to Saudi concerns about Qatar. When President Trump made his first overseas visit last month, his first stop was Riyadh. He gave a speech to the leaders of over 50 Muslim nations, imploring them to do more in the fight against terrorism. The Saudis, and other leaders in the region assured Trump that they would adopt a hard line on funding extremism. On the surface, the speech and subsequent assurances appeared no more candid than others made in the past. Beneath the diplospeak, however, an iron determination to punish Qatar was taking shape in Riyadh, Dubai, Cairo, and Manama. Trump had given the Saudis, Egyptians and their GCC partners the tacit approval they’d long sought from Washington, and the Saudis have wasted little time in implementing draconian measures on Qatar.

Thus far, Qatar is seeking to remedy the situation through dialogue and diplomacy. A number of leaders around the world are seeking resolution along the same avenue, including Turkish President Erdogan. In the Persian Gulf region, though, leaders expect more from Qatar. “We need a guaranteed roadmap to rebuild confidence after our covenants were broken,” UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter. He accused Doha of turning to “money and media and partisanship and extremism” in a series of tweets early Tuesday morning. Qatar has denied the allegations.

For now, the attention is focused on Qatar and its response to its isolation. An eye needs to be kept on Iran as well, however. Tehran is already trying to involve itself in the matter by offering assistance to Qatar. If the Iranians sense an opportunity to swing the regional balance of power in its favor it will not hesitate to act.

Monday 5 June, 2017 Update: Saudi Arabia Severs Ties With Qatar

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The fissure between Qatar and its Gulf State neighbors and allies appears to be widening even more this morning. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar. This potentially volatile diplomatic crisis has been a long time in the making. For years the Saudis, Egypt and other nations in the region have been wary of Qatar’s support for Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which the Saudis and Egyptians particularly regard as a dangerous terror organization. Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing militant groups, some of which are backed by Iran, that are operating in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

SPA, the Saudi state news agency released the following statement summarily explaining Riyadh’s justification for its actions. “(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly.”

The severing of diplomatic ties is apparently not enough to satisfy Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt. Qatari troops are being removed from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The four are also making moves to cut off Qatar’s land, sea, and air routes to the outside world. Saudi Arabia has closed its border with Qatar. The tiny emirate receives 40% of its food from overland routes. Food trucks are now lining up on the border, unable to cross.

Iran, not surprisingly, has taken the opportunity to blame the rift on the United States. Tehran has identified President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh, and the allegedly hawkish tone of his speech to the Muslim world as reasons why this crisis is developing. The Iranian government has also called for a peaceful resolution, and has hinted that it would be open to transporting food and other needed goods to Qatar should this situation continue.

The United States is urging the Gulf nations to negotiate a settlement to their differences. For now, Washington does not appear eager to make a statement or take action that could be perceived by supporting one side over the other.

 

Sunday 21 May, 2017 Update: President Trump in Riyadh

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President Trump’s approach to America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region is markedly different from the policies and approach of his predecessor. For the last eight years, as Iran grew stronger and more audacious, the Gulf States were left to confront the situation without support or guidance from the United States. As the power and influence of ISIS increased, and the Arab Spring metastasized into a regional nightmare Washington remained on the sidelines to a great extent. Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy doctrine was alienating some of America’s most important strategic partners and allies at a time when those nations were desperately seeking US leadership.

President Trump’s visit to Riyadh has made it clear that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies again have a steadfast friend in the White House. The strategic relationship is being rekindled, much to the delight of the Saudis. In a widely anticipated speech on Sunday to the leaders of 50 Muslim-majority nations, Trump called on those nations to take the lead in combatting radical Islamic terrorism, and its root causes. His speech was widely seen as an attempt to ‘reset’ relations with the Muslim world. He blamed Iran for much of the region’s instability, and characterized the war on extremism as a fight between ‘good and evil.’ Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not bring up human rights, or democracy. However, he did condemn the oppression of woman, something the Saudi government is seen to be guilty of.

The list of subjects discussed between Trump, and GCC leaders included threats to regional security and stability, Iran’s influence in the region, and Yemen. The civil war raging in that country is also a proxy war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi/GCC- supported government forces. Iran’s move to support the Houthis came as part of a wider campaign to obtain a lasting strategic advantage over Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and its GCC allies could not stand idly by and allow Yemen to fall into Tehran’s sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of 9 Arab and African nations launched a military intervention in March, 2015. UN efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have been unsuccessful. The Saudis are holding onto the hope that US efforts to broker a ceasefire will materialize and be more fruitful.

President Trump next flies to Israel on Monday morning for a two-day visit.