US-Iran Tensions Rising

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US containment efforts against Iran received a boost on Monday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US sanction waivers on nations currently importing Iranian oil are coming to an end. Put simply, the United States is attempting to prevent as many nations as possible from purchasing Iranian oil. The move is a dagger aimed at Iran’s economy, which is already in a fragile state. The Trump administration has had Iran in the crosshairs for some time now, and significant progress has been made in containing Iranian expansion and influence in the region. Revoking the sanctions, though an effective step, will certainly escalate the US-Iran confrontation. In fact, Tehran has already threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz, a threat that is regularly voiced when expanded US economic sanctions are made against Iran.

This time around, the threat could be real, however. Iran’s economy will undoubtedly take a hit from the waiver action, even though China and perhaps even India will continue to purchase Iranian crude despite US wishes. Oil prices rose to six-month highs Tuesday on fears that the US crackdown on Iran will lower supply. Saudi Arabia has responded with assurances that oil producers will ensure supply levels remain at adequate levels.

Iran has likely taken note of the large US naval presence in the Mediterranean. Sixth Fleet exercises currently underway there have put a pair of US aircraft carriers within a few days sail of the Persian Gulf region. Having the USS Abraham Lincoln, and USS John C Stennis carrier strike groups in the region as tensions with Iran threaten to increase gives the Trump administration a powerful force to use if Tehran moves to close the Strait of Hormuz. For now, there are no indications either carrier group is preparing to head towards the Arabian Sea, If Iran’s threats continue, however, and naval activity around the strait increases, the US carriers will begin moving.

21st Century Gunboat Diplomacy

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The militarization of the South China Sea is an issue that has been slowly gaining momentum in recent months. With global eyes centered on events in Syria for so long, the scope and significance of what is happening in the South China Sea is only now sinking in. The US has been warning China for years now about the ramifications that could result from their buildup of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. ASEAN member nations are quite concerned about China’s intentions and the US has made diplomatic efforts to address and resolve the issue with China and receiving nothing in return. The buildup has continued. The US upped the ante with Show of Force demonstrations with limited numbers of warships and aircraft around some of the islands. China responded by moving surface-to-air missiles and fighters to the disputed area. Beijing simply has not gotten the message. The United States is resorting to an old, but reliable tool to try and persuade China that its actions in the South China Sea should be reconsidered, if not abandoned entirely: Gunboat Diplomacy.

At the present time, the USS. John C. Stennis and her escorts are operating in the South China Sea, flexing muscle in an area that is rapidly becoming China’s armed backyard. China continues to deny that it is militarizing the area in spite of evidence to the contrary. As the standoff between the two nations continues, the presence of Stennis and her strike group in the contested waters is a clear indication that the US making a determined effort to send a clear message through power projection.  How it will be received remains to be seen.

PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and US Navy forces are operating in close proximity at sea and in the air. Both sides have to exercise caution and be prudent while carrying out their respective missions. As we’ve seen with Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter-bomber, it does not take much for a serious incident to come about. Considering that the Western Pacific is a powder keg already, it would not require much to unleash a conflagration across the whole region.