The bubbling tensions between Iran and the United States have brought the Middle East to a dangerous precipice, warns a new report . The International Crisis Group, an international security think tank headquartered in Brussels, argued that, like in Europe in 1914, a miscalculation or escalatory act by one side could easily ensnare the whole region in a ruinous conflict nobody claims to want.
"Then, the assassin's bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria put the entire European continent on fire," noted the report. "Today, a single attack by rocket, drone or limpet mine could set off a military escalation between the U.S. and Iran and their respective regional allies and proxies that could prove impossible to contain."
On Sunday, Iranian state media reported that the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp had seized another oil tanker carrying what they alleged was "smuggled fuel" in the Persian Gulf. The capture of what appears to be a relatively small vessel took place reportedly on Wednesday; neither the nationalities of the vessel nor its crew were revealed.
It marked at least the third time Iranian forces have commandeered a tanker in recent months, after the Revolutionary Guard seized both a Panamanian-flagged and British-flagged vessel last month. The Iranians suggested the taking of the latter was in response to British forces boarding and halting an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean. The United States and European powers are scrambling to develop a plan for heightened maritime security in the Persian Gulf, one of the global economy's most strategic waterways.
There's plenty of other tinder that could catch a spark. In Iraq, Iranian-linked militias and political parties jostle for influence within a fractious central government. Yemen's Houthi rebels, backed to an extent by Iran, have launched rocket attacks into Saudi Arabia and on Red Sea shipping. Beyond all its other miseries, Syria is also the site of what the Crisis Group's Ali Vaez calls a "cat-and-mouse game" between Israel and Iran; the former has targeted the latter's assets in the country with repeated airstrikes in the past half decade. Those animosities could easily flare in neighboring Lebanon, home to the influential Iranian proxy organization Hezbollah.
Both the United States and Iran insist they don't want war. The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign has succeeded in hurting the Iranian economy, but not in curbing Iran's regional behavior - indeed, it has only heightened animosities. The Iranian regime first exercised a degree of patience, attempting to wait out President Trump's pressure tactics by complying with the terms of the nuclear deal that Trump unilaterally broke.
As the noose tightened around Iran's economy, the regime decided to up the ante, breaching uranium enrichment limits set under the deal while urging European partners to offset the huge financial blow of its lost oil exports. A European initiative to help conduct business with Iran without falling afoul of U.S. sanctions has yet to adequately deliver. And so, the Iranians are testing the waters, showing the United States and its allies that they, too, can inflict pain.
"I'm afraid that the leadership in Tehran might have come to the conclusion that noncompliance and pushback have become more fruitful for them than compliance and restraint," Vaez said in a briefing call with reporters last week.
Iranian officials believe that Trump, unlike some of his close advisers, will do as much as he can to prevent a major conflict from breaking out. The president routinely complains about the United States' entanglements in the Middle East, and his administration has urged European and Arab governments to help shoulder the responsibility of maritime security in the region.
That confidence, Vaez warned, "could lead the Iranian regime to miscalculate if they believe that further escalation and provocation will hold little military and diplomatic costs."
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Earlier this summer, Trump boasted of calling off a deadly retaliatory strike on Iranian forces after a U.S. drone was shot down. Trump's messaging unsettled longtime foreign-policy watchers.
"No one should discount the power of ego and appearances in dictating Trump's moves," wrote Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, two former members of the Obama administration's National Security Council. "It remains impossible to tell whether the administration actually intends to go to war, is merely engaging in coercive diplomacy, or is adrift in a sea of miscues. It may not matter. In a maelstrom of probes and provocations, strategic intention may give way to heedless reaction."
Hawkish Republican politicians have openly discussed their desire for airstrikes on Iranian positions, a move security officials warn would not achieve much, while stoking the flames of a far deadlier conflagration.
"Anyone who believes that a strike will somehow cower [the Iranians] is just mistaken," said William McRaven, a retired U.S. admiral who spoke in the same briefing as Vaez. "A country like Iran is proud, it has thousands of years of pride as a nation. When you strike them they will strike back, they will not just roll over. So we have to be very careful about miscalculations."
U.S. allies are explicitly wary of the Trump administration's approach. On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his nation would "not take part in the sea mission presented and planned by the United States" to patrol the Persian Gulf, pointedly adding there was "no military solution" to the impasse with Iran.
"Other governments aren't sure where the U.S. is trying to take them," Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Politico. "They think that aligning with the U.S. incurs risk without providing security."
Even regional powers that are overtly opposed to the regime in Tehran are keen to de-escalate. The United Arab Emirates engaged in a round of talks with Iranian counterparts, while Israeli security officials have been circumspect about identifying Iran as the source of recent sabotage attacks in the Persian Gulf.
Trump, through Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an anti-interventionist libertarian, reportedly extended an invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for face-to-face talks in the Oval Office. That request was declined; the Trump administration then slapped sanctions on Zarif himself and turned to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a classic Republican hawk, to open a parallel track on Iran that will attempt to further isolate Tehran from Europe.
"The absence of a meaningful channel between the U.S. and Iran," wrote the Crisis Group in its report, as well as "the two sides' determination not to back down, and the multiplicity of potential flashpoints means that a clash - whether born of miscalculation or design - cannot be ruled out. Should it occur, it would be difficult to contain in duration or scope."