Tension in the Gulf region: Does Iran have the answer?

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on 25 September 2019 in New York City. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

To the delight of some and the disbelief of others, President Hassan Rouhani announced at the UN General Assembly on 25 September that Iran intends to be a driver for peace and stability in the heart of the Middle East.

“I should like to invite all the countries directly affected by the developments in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz to the Coalition for Hope, meaning [the] Hormuz Peace Endeavour,” Rouhani said. He explained that the coalition’s goal is “promoting peace, stability, progress, and welfare” for all the residents of the region and enhancing mutual understanding and friendly relations among them.

This announcement was made with the backdrop of attacks on six merchant ships in June (four in Fujairah and two under way exiting the strait), the seizing of a British-flagged bulk carrier approaching the strait, and the drone attack on the Saudi oil refining facility on 14 September.

Only the bulk carrier seizure was clearly by the Iranians, but compelling intelligence shows that it is likely they had involvement in the other attacks – assertions that Iran has completely denied.

The laudable principle of non-interference

Suffering from the painful consequences of sanctions, notably on its oil sales, Rouhani stressed that the initiative included “various avenues for co-operation” such as the collective supply of energy security, freedom of navigation, and free transfer of oil and other resources to and from the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.

The coalition would be based on principles, such as compliance with UN goals, mutual respect, dialogue and understanding, and, most importantly, the “two fundamental principles of non-aggression and non-interference in the domestic affairs of each other”, he said.

Iran certainly has some friends inside and outside the region, but these do not include powerful neighbours and their allies, notably the United States. Rouhani specifically blamed the US for being responsible for fuelling conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen.

In response, it was reported that US President Donald Trump had appeared to threaten Iran in retaliation for the Saudi attack with “the ultimate option”, but caveated this with his continued reluctance to involve the US in another Middle Eastern war.

No answer to security

But where does this leave the Gulf and its precarious security situation? Iran has shown that, notwithstanding its weakened economic situation, it has the will and capability to conduct low cost, no notice asymmetric attacks ashore and at sea, and all with the effect of worrying seafarers and hiking the price of oil.

The US’s “ultimate option” almost certainly would be used in the event of the Strait of Hormuz being closed off, but it is far better for Iran to avoid that and keep open the threat of random attacks on merchant shipping.

The most effective counter would be a co-ordinated international response economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Navies have shrunk in the last decade, but there are many members of the 32-strong US-led Combined Maritime Force (CMF) that have or could have naval assets available in the region. Such a force, with the correct numbers and properly co-ordinated, could escort ships in and out of the Gulf and provide an effective deterrent to further disruptive action from the Gulf’s eastern nation.