In the context of the crisis in West Asia, the killing of an Iranian General brings into perspective the underlying tensions which continue to fester. An analysis of the multiple conflicts in West Asia brings to the fore divisions in a society predicated on religious, social, political and economical fault lines.
Both greed and grievances have fuelled the conflict-ridden region, greed expressed through the desire for regional hegemony and a penchant for control over crude oil; grievance visible in the form of sectarian and religious needs for dominant expression.
The conflict in the Gulf can be traced to the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France in 1916, with assent for the Russian Empire and Italy to define their mutually agreed spheres of influence. This indirectly contributed to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following the defeat of the Ottomans in 1918. In 1917, at the height of World War I, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour submitted a letter of intent supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, known as the Balfour Declaration.
The end of the war in 1918, with victory for the Allied Forces, also saw the end of the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire, with Great Britain taking over what became known as Palestine (modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan). The Balfour Declaration and the British mandate over Palestine were approved by the League of Nations in 1922, despite protests by the Arabs who were concerned that a Jewish homeland would mean the subjugation of Arab Palestinians.
The British controlled Palestine until Israel, in the years following the end of World War II, became an independent state in 1947. Arab hostility against Israel led to a series of conflicts, most notably in 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006. The conflicts resulted in Israel expanding its boundaries to include Gaza Strip, a piece of land located between Egypt and modern-day Israel, Golan Heights, a rocky plateau between Syria and modern-day Israel and the West Bank, a territory that divides part of modern-day Israel and Jordan.
Today, hostility between Israel and some of its neighbours remains a prime cause of concern and is a flashpoint in this conflict-ridden region. The Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon are engaged in conflict with Israel since its founding in the 1980s. Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Iran in the ongoing Iran–Israel proxy conflict.
The Houthi rebellion in Yemen is another important flashpoint in the tension-ridden gulf. The Houthis, known as the Ansar Allah, rose to prominence in Yemen as revivalists of the Zaidist faction of Shia Islam. Interestingly, the Houthi movement gained traction with the masses due to political and domestic reasons and not on the basis of sectarian identity.
The onset of the Arab Spring in 2011 also saw resonance in Yemen. Massive protests erupted against President Ali Abdullah Saleh with the legitimacy of his regime being questioned for its submission to the US and its war on terror. The movement sought “regional autonomy, respect for diversity and strengthening of a democratic state”.
Until then, Ansar Allah served as a faction for military and political support instead of religious guidance. Saleh, who served as the first President of Yemen, from Yemeni unification on 22 May 1990, resigned on 25 February 2012, following the Yemeni Revolution and an interim government was formed under President Hadi.
The Ansar Allah viewed the interim process as incompetent for taking too long with the National Dialogue to structure the federal boundaries of Yemen’s economic deterioration and government instability due to various parties struggling for power in the transition period. In 2014, primarily to guarantee its own security and owing to the political instability under Hadi’s interim government, it took military control in the North in Saada and neighbouring regions. In 2014, The Houthis entered the Yemeni capital Sanaa, deposed Hadi and formed an interim government in February 2015
Hadi escaped to Aden from where he declared that he was still the President of Yemen. Later he took exile in Saudi Arabia. Aden remains the HQ of his government, effectively leaving Yemen with two power centres, one at Sanaa and the other at Aden. The Houthis’ pretext for entering Sana’a and deposing Hadi was to reverse an apparent breach of the Hadi government’s mandate by unilaterally declaring an extension of its power beyond the two-year intermediary period actually set by the GCC and the United States. In a twist to the earlier events in Yemen, the security forces loyal to Saleh joined up with the Houthis.
The rise of the Houthis is attributed to the military support it received from Iran, which led the Sunni majority Arab nations of the region and its allies (UK and USA) to launch a campaign to restore President Hadi’s rule. Consequently, Operation Decisive Storm was launched by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels, in a bid to address concerns relating to growing Shia influence through Iran backed Houthi rebels.
Iranian support to the Houthis is covert, which gives Iran deniability, but military actions such as the Scud missile attack in June 2015, directed at King Khalid Air Base at Khamis which killed a Saudi Air Force Commander, Lt Gen. Muhammad Bin Ahmed Al Shaalan points to an Iranian hand in the attack, the tip-off presumably coming from the Iranian Intelligence Agency.
Factors such as Hadi’s failure to address the political division in the country following the Arab Spring, inability to prevent terrorist actions by the AQAP (al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula) and the Houthis’ protracted insurgency in the north, ultimately led to Hadi escaping abroad. This gave rise to anarchy in Yemen, the lawlessness creating a breeding ground for terrorist activities.
The rise of the Islamic State (Also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), which at its zenith held about a third of Syria and about 40 % of Iraq, added a new dimension to the conflict in the region. It emerged from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but faded into obscurity till 2011 when it reemerged and taking advantage of the growing instability in Iraq and Syria, captured huge swathes of territory.
While the ISIS stands decimated today, its ideology has not been impacted. The defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of Iran as a major player, has fuelled once again the Shia-Sunni divide, with Iran and Saudi Arabia jostling for influence.
The dispute between Saudi and Iran has been that of regional hegemony. It also has religious/sectarian overtones—Saudi Arabia being a Sunni majority and Iran a Shia majority nation. In 2003, US intervention in Iraq overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime which brought down Iran’s major adversary and promoted a Shia dominated government. The removal of this neighbouring obstacle increased Iran’s influence. Likewise, in 2011, when West Asia was in an upheaval owing to the Arab Spring, both Saudi and Iran attempted to gain control.
Today, West Asia stands divided between pro-Sunni Saudi allies—the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt and the pro-Shia Iran allies. For Iran, Syrian Shia president Bashar al Assad is a key supporter who in turn draws support from the pro-Iranian Shia militia—Hezbollah. Iraq is also a key ally to Iran, although paradoxically, USA is also an ally to Iraq.
While there have not been direct confrontation between the Saudi and Iran, the region is rife with proxy wars backed by these two powers. Syria is one such obvious example followed by the proxy war in Yemen, in which Iran is said to have supplied the Houthis with intel and military weaponry. While the region remains conflict-ridden, the most important factors for the world at large are twofold. One, to prevent Iran from procuring nuclear weapons.
Two, to ensure safe and secure passage of crude across the globe, which Iran has threatened to block following growing tensions with the US. For the US, Iran presents itself as a destabilising force in West Asia, and also a mortal threat, should it be able to procure nuclear weapons.
Similarly, for Saudi, Iran is a threat and a contender for regional dominance. On the other hand, Israel, surrounded by the Arab world on all sides, also perceives Iran as an existential threat that is willing to procure and use nuclear weapons against it. The tension thus has been festering upon the conflicts in the past and has turned sour because of the fear around Iran procuring nuclear weapons.
In this backdrop, and with the desire of the US and its allies to cap Iran’s nuclear programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in May 2015 between the P5+1 (U.S.A, U.K., France, China, Russia, + Germany) and Iran. It came into being after the global community collectively took action against Iran’s nuclear programme from 2012–2015 in the form of sanctions, which sent the Iranian economy into a massive decline, with more than 50 % decrease in its crude oil exports.
Through the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear programme was curbed, in exchange for nuclear and economic sanctions being lifted. The deal did not, however, address concerns with respect to Iran’s ballistic missile programme, human rights violations and its support to the U.S identified terrorist groups. In May 2018, the US Government unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, ostensibly because the above issues remained unaddressed. In addition, as per the US, the sunset provisions in the JCPOA provide a termination date to the agreement, which makes the program a futile effort.vii
The US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its impositions of strict sanctions on Iran is aimed at pressurising Iran into giving up its nuclear programme and pulling out of the Syrian war. This has led to increase in tension between the two countries which has the potential to spill over into conflict in the Gulf, and which in turn could impact both the production of crude oil in the region and its supply to the energy-dependent countries across the world.
President Trump has already put in place sanctions on Iranian oil, and Iran has responded with threats to block all oil transport through the Strait of Hormuz. With an increase in tension, the politics of oil has once again taken centre stage in the region. Three key aspects which need consideration are:
- The importance of crude in the emerging power struggle.
- Proxy wars for regional dominance
- Fear of Iran procuring Nuclear Weapons, which remains central to the USA-Iran relations.
Importance of Crude amidst Power Struggle
The recent events which played around transportation and processing of crude oil in the Gulf highlight the importance of crude oil in the conflict. The first signs of conflict emerged with the US withdrawing from the JCPOA on 5 November 2018 and imposing sanctions on Iran. On 12 May 2019, two Saudi oil tankers – a “Very Large Crude Carrier” (VLCC) Amjad and a crude tanker Al Marzoqah among two other ships were sabotaged across the UAE coast, one of which was en-route to pick up Saudi oil for the US. Iran has threatened to block the strait and affect crude transport was under suspicion.
Then on July 4, British Royal Marines stopped and apprehended a supertanker in Gibraltar which was carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, which UK referred to as a breach of the EU sanctions. Iran retaliated on July 19, with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) capturing a British Tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
On September 14, the situation escalated further with drone attacks on two major Saudi Aramco oil facilities. The Abqaiq (largest oil-producing plant) and Khurais oilfields were hit, disrupting Saudi crude production by 50 % for over a month. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is widely believed that the Houthis lacked the capacity to carry out such a precision attack, which could only have been done with Iranian support. This further raised tensions in the region.x
Proxy wars for regional supremacy
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in proxy wars to establish their hegemony in the Gulf. Iran has responded through proxy outfits which it has backed in the Gulf. On 14 May 2019, Houthis attacked an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, which reports suggested were backed by Iran. Months later, on 27 December, a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base killed a US contractor. Hezbollah was held responsible, which is an Iran backed militia group.
This was met by violent retaliation on December 29, when strikes were carried out against Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria by the US in retaliation to the killing of the American contractor. Within two days, on December 31, the US embassy in Iraq was attacked by pro-Iranian protestors, which the Trump administration has claimed was done on Iran’s bidding. The conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq thus have elements of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia embedded in them. The killing of General Soleimani, on 3 January 2020, by a US missile attack, thus had a context, and was a monumental blow to Iran’s regional ambitions.xiii
Iran-US rivalry over Iran’s attempts to procure nuclear weapons
While considering the Iran-US rivalry, the risk of Iran procuring nuclear weapons is of paramount concern, which is central to the rising tensions in the region. The series of events which fit into this category can be placed since 21 May 2018, when the USA, upon its withdrawal from the JCPOA, demanded that Iran drop its nuclear programme and pull out of the Syrian war. On August 7 and November 5, the USA imposed sanctions for round 1 and 2 respectively.
In early 2019, tensions grew when on May 8, Iran increased its uranium enrichment and heavy water production. In the next two months, on July 1, reports came in about Iran exceeding the cap of 300 kg enriched uranium stockpile. Within the same week, Iran exceeded the limit again. In the next few months, Iran continued to declare that it was exceeding limits, enriching uranium and refining purity. In the month of September, Iran activated its advanced centrifuge and in November fuelled the centrifuge by injecting Uranium gas into the centrifuge at the Fordow facility.xv
Thus, whether it was the nuclear embargo imposed on Iran by the US against its nuclear programme, Iran’s retaliation by continuing to enrich uranium and produce heavy water, USA instilling stricter sanctions in an attempt to cripple Iran’s economy or Iran’s announcement in retaliation to activate its advanced centrifuges and to begin fuelling them, all point to how the risk of Iran developing nuclear weapons remains a key issue amidst the rising tensions.
This coupled with the Saudi-Iran rivalry for influence in the Muslim world being played out in Yemen, gives rise to serious concerns about the future of stability in the region. A conflagration could easily spill over into an attack on the oil fields and in blocking the Strait of Hormuz. That would be disastrous for the Asian economies, more specifically for India. The importance of crude cannot be denied either can the thirst for regional dominance be immediately quenched.
Iran, as of now, is unlikely to yield to pressure on its quest for nuclear weapons, unless sanctions are lifted. A long term solution to the complexity of issues in the Gulf will hence not be easy to come by. But peace in the region is essential if stability of energy resources is to be maintained. Towards that end, it is hoped that the world in general and the region in particular, would come to some understanding.