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US, Iran, and tension in Middle East

The US is creating a wedge with its European allies who are against the withdrawal of the nuclear pact.

US, Iran, and tension in Middle East

The Middle East is in the grip of heightened tension as the US and Iran, two rivals with more than four decades of animosity and hostilities, are engaged in a blistering war of words in recent days, raising the spectre of anxiety and uncertainty in the region.

Iran has been under increasing US pressure and possible sanctions since President Donald Trump in May pulled his country out of a nuclear pact with Iran, reached by his predecessor Barack Obama and other global powers -- Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany—and threatened tough American sanctions against Teheran.

The Trump administration is putting pressure on India, China, and other buyers to end all imports of Iranian oil by the November 4 deadline. The Trump administration has reportedly launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and exert pressure on Iran to end its nuclear programme and its support to militant groups.

President Trump reacted angrily to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's statement that Washington's hostile policies toward Teheran could lead to "the mother of all wars." In his tweet directed at Rouhani, Trump wrote in caps, "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE AND DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!" Rouhani had told a gathering of Iranian diplomats: "Mr. Trump, don't play with the lion's tail, this would only lead to regret."

"America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars," Iran's official news agency IRNA quoted him as saying. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif hit back at Trump's warning saying in a tweet, "...Iranians have heard them - albeit more civilised ones---for 40 yrs. We have been around for millennia and seen the fall of empires, including our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries." Echoing exact words of Trump, Zarif wrote in capital letters, "BE CAUTIOUS!"

Although Rouhani left open the possibility of peace between Teheran and Washington, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out negotiations with the US as an "obvious mistake."

Trump's tweet resembled one he issued last year to warn North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme. However, in June he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the first-ever summit between the two sides. After the meeting, the two sides declared a new friendship and made vague pledges of nuclear disarmament.

There is a growing fear in the region that the war of words might lead to a military confrontation but many observers say that despite the heightened rhetoric, both sides have reasons to avoid any conflict. Too much pressure on Iran may embolden and strengthen the hardliners and weaken the moderates who have been marginalised within Iran. The moderates are already under pressure as the dividends of the nuclear deal do not seem to have percolated to the common Iranians.

Iran's leaders have called for unity in view of rising discontent over the country's faltering economy and sliding currency and the prospect of tough US sanctions. The American move meant that the US is creating a wedge with its European allies who are against the withdrawal of the nuclear pact.

There is very little chance of a conflict, mainly because of the difficulties the US military faced in Iraq after its 2003 invasion and also impact on the global economy due to hike in oil prices in the event of a confrontation. A full-scale military confrontation could also distract from other US national security priorities, including Russia and North Korea. American people do not want another war in the Middle East.

In the last 40 years, almost 7,500 American servicemen have been killed and more than 53,000 have been wounded in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Almost 4,500 were killed more than 32,000 wounded in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, Ellen R Wald, who teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University, wrote in Arab News. Trump is already under pressure from US lawmakers for his soft approach against Russia at a recent summit in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin.

Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said, "President Trump has failed to assure Americans he would side with us over Russia. To distract from the Helsinki disaster, he has launched a childish all-caps Twitter tirade against Iran. Barstool threats don't make us safe, they make us look silly and weak."

The US decision to re-impose economic sanctions on Teheran has led to the closing of ranks by Iran's faction-ridden religious and political elites against Trump's hawkish approach towards Teheran.

Also, Turkey, a close ally of Iran, has said that it was against severing economic ties with Iran if the US re-imposes sanctions. It goes against the independence of states to cut ties with its "neighbor and strategic partner" because the US demands it, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said.

US officials met Turkish companies on July 19 and officials of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Treasury and central bank the next day regarding the sanctions against Iran. Many Turkish companies are prime trade partners with Teheran. India, which is getting a large portion of its oil requirement from Iran, has so far not taken a stand on the proposed US sanctions. Beginning November the payment channels would get blocked and it will have to look for an alternate mode of payment to Iran for its oil purchase.

India currently pays Iran in euros using European banking channels. During the first round of sanctions in 2012 when the European Union joined the US in imposing financial restrictions, India initially used a Turkish bank to pay Iran for the oil it bought. Beginning February 2013 it paid nearly half of the oil import bill in rupees while keeping the remainder pending till the opening of payment routes. It began clearing the dues in 2015 when the restrictions were eased.

In 2017-18, India bought 22.6 million tonnes of crude oil from Iran. Iran became India's second-biggest supplier after Iraq in the first three months of current fiscal, supplying 8.93 million tonnes of oil.

Iran was India's second biggest supplier of crude oil after Saudi Arabia till 2010-11 but western sanctions over its suspected nuclear programme relegated it to the seventh spot in subsequent years. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, India bought 11 million tonnes and 10.95 million tonnes respectively from Iran.

Sourcing from Iran to India increased to 12.7 million tonnes in 2015-16, giving it the sixth spot. In the following year, the Iranian supplies jumped to 27.2 million tonnes to catapult it to the third spot.

(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)

M Shakeel Ahmed

M Shakeel Ahmed

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