Recent attacks on shipping, blamed on Iran, expose the fragility of Gulf states’ security and economies. But their in-fighting could derail U.S. strategy on Iran – and fuel insecurity across the Mideast
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On Monday, the United Arab Emirates formally requested U.S. assistance to investigate an attack on several commercial vessels near Fujairah.
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The incidents appear to have taken place near the UAE’s territorial waters in the Sea of Oman, close to the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point for crude exports out of the oil-rich region.
While preliminary indications are that the device used at least on one vessel was likely a low-tech limpet mine, the culprit is yet unidentified. U.S. officials have since said that Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage and that it “fits” their modus operandi; the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said, once the culprit was determined, the U.S. should take “reasonable responses short of war.”
A picture taken on May 13, 2019 off the coast of the Gulf emirate of Fujairah shows Norwegian oil tanker Andrea Victory, one of the four tankers damaged in alleged “sabotage attacks” Photo by HANDOUT / Emirati National Media Council / AFP
For their part, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called it “worrisome and dreadful,” while an Iranian parliamentary spokesman blamed the attack on “Israeli mischief.”
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The latest developments come amid increasing tensions between the United States and Iran. Iran, at least in part due to economic woes as a result of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, over the last week has employed both a charm offensive and threats in attempts to gain international attention and sanctions relief.
As part of its evolving defense posture in the Persian Gulf, Washington last week dispatched B-52 bombers to its Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, while aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is expected to arrive in the Gulf within the next couple of days.
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President Trump’s strategic objective for the Middle East is to isolate Iran regionally by forging ties between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE).
But intra-GCC squabbles – notably between Saudi Arabia and UAE, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, and between UAE and Oman – threaten to not only derail Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran, but could derail wider U.S. regional goals for years to come.
All GCC players are important to the U.S. strategy. While acts pertaining to the “Qatar crisis” have long been debated, it is still unclear which issues the parties are willing to resolve without a ridiculous intrusion into Qatar’s sovereignty, and which issues all but guarantee the fracturing of the GCC defense alliance.
When it comes to Oman’s tensions with UAE and Saudi Arabia, this is largely tied to Saudi Arabia’s decision to dispatch some 5,000 troops, along with several thousand militia fighters to Yemen’s Mahra Governorate, which borders Oman. The UAE, for its part, has dispatched its own Special Forces to the Yemeni island of Socotra. Both moves contribute to the appearance of a strategic encirclement of Oman by its neighbors.
Washington is doing what it can. Only a few weeks ago, the Trump administration and Oman signed an agreement which facilitates U.S. Navy access to Omani ports, easing access to the Gulf region. The agreement, which had been in negotiations for several years, covers U.S. carriers and nuclear submarines.
U.S. Navy personnel on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transiting the Suez Canal on the way to the Persian Gulf responding to an unspecified threat from Iran. May 9, 2019Mass Communication Specialist 3r
Both the agreements and recent deployments illustrate the critical roles that Qatar and Oman play in Washington’s posturing vis-à-vis Tehran – but as the Fujairah shipping incidents underscore, the Gulf’s security remains fragile amid these increasing regional tensions.
These dynamics not only complicate Trump’s campaign against Iran, but they contribute to insecurity across the broader Middle East. Intra-GCC tensions erode Gulf states’ ability to fight terrorism collectively and to help stabilize post-ISIS Syria and Iraq. GCC rivalry, in fact, is not limited to the Arabian peninsula but is now also impacting Libya, which is bound to impact Europe and the influx of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite these challenges, there is still a narrow path to solve the GCC crisis. There is still a chance for the Middle East Strategic Alliance, a proposed collective security architecture designed to unite, at least politically, the GCC monarchies, Egypt and Jordan on causes held in common: fighting terrorism and containing Iran’s regional aspirations. In the future, Israel and Palestine would also be expected to become MESA observers, an inclusion that could contribute to resolve the entrenched Israel/Palestinian conflict.
But de-escalating the crisis with Iran can’t be achieved solely by the U.S. boosting its military profile in the Gulf. It must be accompanied by a diplomatic strategy to engage Tehran. And Oman is uniquely positioned to mediate this.
Just last week, Oman’s ambassador to Washington, Hunaina Al-Mughairy, declared in a rare interview that, “Muscat would be willing to help mediate the [U.S.-Iran] crisis, if the sides would find such support helpful.”
While Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have, for all practical purposes, adopted a rejectionist narrative on dealing with Iran, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar support engaging with Iran. That is despite the fact that all six monarchies are united in their concern over Tehran’s quest for regional hegemony and its destabilizing policies.
The sharp schism within the GCC over Iran – coupled with the recognition that the Gulf crisis has become a source for global instability – helped inform Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said’s decision to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat in October 2018.
Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, October 26, 2018. HANDOUT/Reuters
As the only GCC country to actually maintain close ties with Iran, Oman recognizes it is in a unique position to defuse regional tensions. Qaboos is setting himself up as a potential interlocutor between Israel and Iran – which is considered Israel’s arch-enemy – but also between Tehran and Washington.
In light of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and his refusal to re-engage Tehran while it expands its military meddling, Qaboos may be betting that the route to U.S.-Iran detente may be via Jerusalem – by engaging Netanyahu directly on Iran.
Interestingly, Tehran decided not to criticize Muscat for hosting Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials, such as the head of the Mossad. The reason is simple: Tehran genuinely appreciates its ties with Muscat and doesn’t want to sacrifice them so easily.
That space for Oman to mediate, pass messages and reduce the chance of lethal miscalculations is even more important as tensions between Washington and Tehran are rising. Washington’s Gulf partners need to put aside their differences and back members’ efforts to preserve the region’s fragile stability.
The Fujairah incident urgently illustrates the vulnerability of Gulf states, their security and economies to escalation with Iran. The shipping attacks may be blamed on Iranian sabotage, but there is no conceivable advantage for the Gulf states to continue to self-sabotage their own collective security.
Mary Beth Long is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Chair of NATO’s High Level Group. Twitter: @LongDefense
Sigurd Neubauer is an expert on the Gulf and U.S.-Arab relations. He is a regular commentator on Al Jazeera, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Gulf International Forum. Twitter: @SigiMideast