Donald Trump does not want war with Iran, and neither does Tehran apparently. Yesterday Hassan Rouhani announced he will soon be presenting the United Nations General Assembly with a peace plan for the Persian Gulf. Over just a few days, as the Middle East is set on fire, ablaze like Saudi Arabia’s burning oil facilities, the world finds itself confronting not a simple war, but a war regarding what peace should look like.
It seems paradoxical, yet it is no mystery that the Middle East is not always governed linearly. So, we find ourselves face to face not with two countries that want conflict, but with two countries that want peace, however each one on its own terms. It is profoundly evident that it will not be easy for them to reach a compromise, because neither wants to back down once confronted with its arch-enemy, as America is for the Islamic Republic of Iran, or as Tehran is for Washington allied with Israel and the Arab countries. On the other hand, the Iranian government knows it cannot afford to embark on an extenuating war, made of sanctions and cyber attacks. While Trump’s America First and “strategic retreat” policies mean that the United States has no interest in going to war over the Persian Gulf. Especially following the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and with the upcoming elections, in which ‘The Donald’ will want to be remembered as the man who kept his promise of a strong America while not being involved in conflicts throughout the world.
The Washington and Tehran chancelleries are therefore taking stealthy steps in this escalation to de-escalate the atmosphere. All this is occurring as the Middle East continues to suffer under Israel’s silent airstrikes, Saudi bombings in Yemen and Houthi rebels attacking Riyadh’s oil plant facilities, exposing not only Saudi Arabia’s but also America’s weaknesses. A mechanism so complex it is becoming inextricable, and why it is becoming increasingly complex and necessary each day to find a way to resolve the situation without appearing defeated?
Trump’s plan is simple. He wants to reach a compromise with Hassan Rouhani which on one hand reassures his Middle Eastern allies and on the other does not make it look like he is giving up to the enemy. In order to do this the State Department has put forward a solution also acceptable to the White House: reinforce the US presence in the region and build an air-sea coalition strong enough to ensure the free movement of ships in the Strait of Hormuz, imposing US military presence as a substitute for the lack of Saudi defence forces. As Mike Pompeo explained, all this would be implemented to avoid a potential war. The head of US diplomacy interviewed by Fox News stated: “Our mission set is to avoid war”. Not only that. Pompeo also stressed that President Trump “would like a diplomatic solution.” Words not uttered by chance considering that they were spoken just as Riyadh announced that should Iran’s responsibility in last week’s attacks be confirmed, then the strikes would be considered “an act of war.”
Trump’s strategy for the moment appears linear. He knows he cannot afford a war and neither does he wish to embark on one. It is on this certainty that the Revolutionary Guard Corps is counting. It knows it can afford to up the stakes in the Persian Gulf challenge with operations which only a few months ago would have been unthinkable if we consider the oil tankers seized along the routes under the scrutiny of the Pasdaran fleet. This escalation, however, is also an issue for Rouhani who, as an outsider to the Revolutionary Guards, knows beyond doubt that a conflict of this calibre will lead to stricter sanctions, impoverish the Iranian middle class and above all risks increasing the internal power of the country’s more extremist and belligerent factions. Those which could menace his leadership.
It is a complex game of alliances, enemies, and opponents who could become partners and partners who on the other hand could become worst enemies. All this in one of the planet’s most explosive territories. The United States continues to arm the region with the sale of missile systems and training their allied Arab forces. Meanwhile, Iran’s navy announces joint drills with China and Russia in the waters in front of Hormuz, while Moscow and Beijing are requesting all parties in the conflict to remain calm. It appears that nobody wants this war. The risks are enormous for all, with opposing interests at stake and, once again paradoxically, diverging between the allies themselves.
Does everybody want peace? Yes, they do. But everybody wants peace their way. In order to sign a compromise, Trump will be forced to “disappoint” Saudi and Israeli expectations, which can only be reassured in exchange for guarantees regarding Iran’s influence in the area and the sale of weapons. But above all, they must have the certainty that Tehran will never be equipped for the production of nuclear weapons. Iran wants peace. Yet, it cannot renounce its long-term strategy based on the expansion of its interests beyond the Gulf, towards the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. China wants a peace which will ensure it has freedom of action in the region. While Russia aims at reaching a compromise, but with a deal which safeguards all the parties in the conflict in order not to disrupt its strategy in the Middle East. To cap it all Israel wants Tehran out of the game in Syria and Iraq while the Saudis hope that their disastrous operation in Yemen will turn in their favour. Which peace will prevail above all others?
Translation by Audrey Sadleir