Analysis & Opinions

Will U.S.-Iran Tensions Trigger a New Global Power Balance?

| July 11, 2019

The United States announced earlier this week that it seeks to build a coalition of countries to guarantee freedom of navigation in strategic Gulf waters.

Given the rising tensions between the US and Iran, this is only likely to shift the focus of their bilateral confrontation to other, non-maritime arenas, and it could accelerate moves to blunt the US' power by other major powers who are not pleased with Washington's increasingly aggressive, hegemonic, and unilateral global actions.

Most countries in the region will pay close attention to Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford's announcement that, "We're engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab". 

Yet few who live in or know the Middle East will expect this force to materialise or to succeed in forcing Iran to change its policies. This is due to four main reasons that will all come into play now.

First, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Middle East has mostly been a graveyard of attempted anti-Iran or anti-militant military coalitions that sought to merge American, Arab, Israeli and South Asian forces.

They either failed to materialise because of the impossibility of serious political-military joint action by Arab, Israeli, and foreign parties who do not see eye-to-eye or actively confront one another, or beacause they create illusory coalitions that exist only on paper and in occasional tangential military training exercises. 

Most Arab parties are weak players that cannot say 'no' to the US and also do not have the political will or technical capabilities to challenge Iran. The latest example is the "Middle East Strategic Alliance" that the US sought to launch in 2017, but with little success. 

Second, the reflexive resort to US-led militarism has always led to increased tensions and lasting turmoil in the region, as has occurred in recent months since President Trump first ordered a large increase in US air and naval deployments. 

Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran started by withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last year, then steadily increased economic pressures to strangle the Iranian economy.

The heightened American military posture two months ago then triggered a series of reprisals and consequences. An oil pipeline inside Saudi Arabia was blown up, four ships - including three oil tankers - were damaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, two other Norwegian and Japanese tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, and Iran downed an unmanned American drone.

The United States and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for these actions. Tehran strongly denies most accusations, and regularly repeats that it would not allow any oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz - where some 20 percent of the world's oil exports pass - if its own shipments cannot also be exported.

This escalating confrontation will only increase rapidly and could dangerously approach warfare, if militarism remains the preferred American response to what is at heart a political issue.

Third, this political-military crisis was triggered totally by the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, which was both fully implemented by Iran and also explicitly supported by the international community via Security Council endorsement. 

It has naturally elicited a political-military response from Iran, and the latest military coalition plan by Washington is likely to see other world actors step into the fray to either defuse tensions or oppose American aggression and arrogance.

We witnessed both such developments in the past two days. On Wednesday, Russia sided with Iran against the US at a special session of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where its delegate said the US could not simultaneously reject the JCPOA and demand that Iran fully adhere to its terms.

Russia Wednesday also blamed the US for the rising tensions, as its Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, "The situation is very concerning…The reasons for this are clear. This is Washington's deliberate, premeditated course to exacerbate tensions."

The same day, a top French presidential envoy met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran to explore how to resume a political dialogue between all the parties to the JCPOA, following French President Emmanuel Macron's hour-long telephone discussion with the Iranian president. 

Macron said he wanted to explore the conditions for a resumption of dialogue between all parties by 15 July.

Fourth, and perhaps most significant for the world beyond the Middle East and this moment, the American call for a military coalition against Iran is likely to accelerate moves by Russia, China, the European Union, and perhaps others, such as Turkey and India, to take coordinated measures to blunt Washington's escalating drive to impose its political will and domestic laws on the entire world.

The US under Trump has used military force occasionally in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but more often it applies punitive sanctions and trade tariffs against those who defy it, including its allies.

Intriguing signs of this beyond the French and Russian moves mentioned above include the launch of the EU's Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges with Iran that allows humanitarian sales to take place, which some parties would like to expand into normal commercial trade, including oil and gas. 

Washington has threatened to sanction European firms that trade with Iran, and most have complied by ceasing their Iran dealings, though many would also like to defy the US  if a European trading mechanism were available.

The Russians and Chinese have indicated already that they will keep buying Iranian oil, and are exploring an international payments mechanism that would bypass the use of dollars and American financial clearing systems, especially in their substantial bilateral energy trade.

Analysts in the US have started paying attention to the expanding Sino-Soviet cooperation in several political and military arenas, which could portend a coordinated effort to counter Washington's vision of a global order it configures to its liking.

Also intriguing are some regional collaborations that see Russia, Turkey, and Iran working together on Syrian issues, for example, according to strategies that suit their interests and defy American aims.

So, aggressive and unilateral American moves in the Gulf this week may trigger reactions in Moscow, Paris, Brussels, Beijing, Ankara and elsewhere that transcend the US-Iran standoff. 

We may be witnessing early attempts to chart the outlines of a new global balance of power that rectifies the "unipolar" American-dominated world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War in 1989, and perhaps started to decline in 2019.

Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Original publication can be found on The New Arab website.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Will U.S.-Iran Tensions Trigger a New Global Power Balance?.” , July 11, 2019.