After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities
Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.
Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.
Iranian reactions to US statements
If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:
We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.
Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.
Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities
What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.
Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.
Why France’s statement was especially surprising
Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.
Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.
It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.
Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?
The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.
The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive
The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.
With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.
Role of countries like Japan and India
While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.
Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.
Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.
It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.
It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.
During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.
It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.
China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.