Gulf Security in Flux amid COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVOD-19 pandemic is no dampener for hyper-tensions that have continued to simmer and plague the Persian Gulf security. Last week, China made known its intention to not allow the US pursue its strategy of ‘Maximum Pressure’ against Iran. Its mission at the United Nations tweeted that the United States “has no right to extend an arms embargo on Iran, let alone to trigger ‘snapback’. Maintaining JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is the only right way moving forward”.

Russia too joined the chorus and its permanent representative at the Vienna-based international organizations accused the US of blackmailing the UN Security Council members. “US position on arms embargo against #Iran and #SnapBack is very weak not only from the viewpoint of common sense but also in legal terms,” Moscow has stated that JCPOA members would steadfastly support a ‘genuine full commitment to the nuclear deal, will continue to fight for its preservation and sustainable implementation”.

The US and China are pitted against each other over trade war and technology theft/IPR issues, and now the US has openly accused China and called it the fountainhead of COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the prevailing sharp lines between US, China and Russia, Iran is on ‘steroids’ and is making all possible moves including posturing to challenge US-Saudi hegemony in the region. It is stridently pushing hard against the US in the Persian Gulf with aggressive manoeuverschallenging US naval ships and Coast Guard vessels operating in the region. It has also announced new military capabilities at sea, in the air, and in space i.e. a new 700 kilometers range anti-ship missiles, drones with a range of 1,500 kilometers that could be armed with anti-tank missiles and launched its first military reconnaissance satellite after months of failures.

These are despite domestic challenges such as the struggling public health system due to coronavirus pandemic (total cases as on 18 May 2020:Cases:20,198; Deaths: 6,988; Recovered: 94,464), devastating economic fallouts from low energy demand as also there is no spare capacity to store oil,and an unfortunate ‘friendly fire hit’ on its naval ship and earlier the shooting down of the Ukrainian civil aircraft by the Revolutionary Guards mistaken for a cruise missile.

Meanwhile, US-Saudi Arabia relations have taken toll including a showdown over oil production. Washington had urged Riyadh to cut oil production to prevent volatility in markets and stabilize oil prices after American oil companies were hit hard and some even were pushed into bankruptcy. President Trump, visible angered due to absence of support from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, orderedwithdrawal of two batteries of Patriot missile and two jet fighter squadrons deployed to protect Saudi oil facilities. These had been deployed last year after the Aramco oil facilities came under attack by drones for which the Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility but were ostensiblyorchestrated by Iran which has relied on proxies from Yemen to Lebanon for exercising hegemony over the region.

These development should also be seen in the context of a proposal to form a ‘new bloc’to challenge the US-Saudi led order in the region. Five countries i.e. Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, have chosen to join hands and form a ‘pseudo coalition’ and lead and resolve the politico-diplomatic and strategic issues in the region. This proposal had been gathering acceptance ever since Iran called for a China-Iran-Russia coalition and announced joint naval exercise called Marine Security Belt in the northern Indian Ocean.

The initiative was indeed the beginning of the end of ‘the long-standing Western maritime hegemony’ in the region wherein China, a long standing friend of Iran with engagements that span politico-diplomatic, economic, trade and energy relations, and Russia an ardent supporter of Iran and a major source of military hardware. Iranian nuclear ambitions also loom large despite the presence of US naval platforms and other military assets to provide a potent security cover to the regional countries against Iran. In particular, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has warned that if “Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible,"

However, there are at least threereasons to believe US may not push very hard against Iran. First, the US’ hands are full with China over a number of issues such as trade, pandemic and more recently military posturing in South China Sea.

Second, an expert has argued that “US’ Gulf allies — the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar — are no longer pushing the US into a confrontationist policy but instead engaging with Iran” and that “ Iran may “settle for a ‘wait-and-see’ approach till the November election in the US gets over, refraining from escalating tensions”.

Third, the GCC states are hit by ‘double whammy’ of the pandemic and falling oil prices and are in the midst of austerity measures with little scope for spending on fighting against Iran or even supporting the US. Finally, the Persian Gulf security remains highly dynamic and can change very rapidly due low threshold levels of trust and a host of other reasons.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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