New Delhi: Tensions between Iran and the US took a dramatic turn Thursday when American President Donald Trump approved military strikes against Iranian targets, only to change his mind later.
Trump’s order for the attacks came after Iran shot down a US spy drone Thursday. It remains unclear whether the US still plans to strike Iran or not.
These developments have dramatically heightened tensions between the US and Iran, which were already running high, and gave rise to fears of war.
Iran is located in a strategically key place, and a majority of the world’s oil supplies move along the Strait of Hormuz to the south of the country.
ThePrint traces how the tensions built up between the two countries, the politics of oil, and the stand of the European Union in this crisis.
How did tensions start?
Last year, Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal that promised to relax US economic sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran accepting curbs on its nuclear activities. Under the new US sanctions, Iran’s economy has collapsed, with its currency losing 60 per cent of its value and inflation ballooning to 50 per cent. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had called the US sanctions “economic terrorism”.
In April this year, Trump had designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country’s military, as a foreign terrorist organisation. This was the first time that the US labelled another nation’s military as a terror outfit. Iran retaliated by declaring all US forces in West Asia as terrorists.
Last week, the US had blamed Iran for explosions on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. And, earlier this week, Iran had threatened to breach the uranium stockpile limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal and the US announced the deployment of 1,000 more troops to the region.
Is the US going to war with Iran?
Although Trump has called off the military strikes against Iranian radar and missile launch points, it is unclear whether the US will stick to its stand or not.
Trump has publicly stated that he does not want war with Iran, but the statements of some of the US’s top officials give contradictory indications.
For instance, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told a Senate Committee in April there was “no doubt there is a connection” between Iran and Al-Qaeda. A 2018 study conducted by Harvard professor Nelly Lahound, however, found no evidence of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Iran, contrary to Pompeo’s assertions.
Last week, Pompeo had blamed Iran for an attack on a US convoy by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
It was Pompeo and US National Security Advisor John Bolton who had pushed through a decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group. The duo, considered Iran hawks, also favoured a military response against Iran, which top Pentagon officials have cautioned them against.
Also, when Brian Hook, the senior State Department official on Iran issues, was asked if the administration could legally use the 9/11 war legislation to take military action against Iran, he said it would “comply with the law”. When asked whether Iran was responsible for the deaths of Americans due to 9/11 attacks, Hook had replied, “No”.
If invoked, the war law passed in the wake of 9/11 would allow Trump to bypass Congress and order attacks on any group that he feels was involved in the 9/11 attacks or harboured organisations or persons involved in the attacks.
The 9/11 law has been invoked over 30 times by multiple US Presidents to justify deployment of troops to Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Somalia, Philippines and Yemen.
The US would need approval from the UN Security Council to strike against Iran. But, if the US goes ahead with the strike unilaterally, it could open up an international legal challenge and sanctions from other countries.
Oil and politics
Iran might be hoping that it will receive more international support in countering US sanctions if other countries feel that US-Iran tensions are affecting their economies.
Up to 90 per cent of all oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, and over 80 per cent of the oil goes to the Asia-Pacific region.
Attacks on oil tankers in this region primarily threaten the European and Asian economies that rely on this oil. China receives the highest proportion of oil, and last week Chinese President Xi Jinping had said China would promote steady ties with Iran “no matter how the situation changed”.
Iran’s oil exports have already been restricted by US sanctions, but threats to oil tankers in the region could affect Saudi Arabia and UAE’s exports as well. The Saudi and UAE economies depend entirely on their own oil exports, and Iran could be hoping that these US allies could convince Trump to roll back sanctions in order to protect their own economies.
Iran has repeatedly asked for help from the European Union and has set a deadline of 7 July for it to find better terms for the 2015 deal. Iran has threatened further breach of the deal if the EU fails to do so.
The EU’s attempts to ease US sanctions on Iran and allow EU companies to trade with the country have been largely unsuccessful: A “special purpose vehicle” called INSTEX was announced in January 2019 to facilitate this, but it is not yet operational.
The EU has stated that it needs more time to assess US claims that Iran was behind the oil tanker attacks, fearing a repeat of 2003, when European forces had moved to support a US coalition in Iraq on unverified American claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. However, earlier in the week, before the downing of the US drone, the EU was fairly critical of Trump’s role in the escalation of tensions between US and Iran.
A special adviser to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top official for foreign affairs, blamed the US for the tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“This is happening for one reason that has not been cited so far, which is the fact that the United States has violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, meaning the Iran deal,” adviser Nathalie Tocci said on BBC radio, telling the US: “You’re not living up to your side of the bargain.”