The United States says all options are on the table. There is saber rattling on all sides. Iran threatens retaliation. Oil prices rise. Frenzy media and analysts contribute theories about the ‘when, why, what, where and who’ dynamics of the ‘conflict’.
And, a few weeks later, as is evident already, the crisis de-escalates towards a slow death, waiting only to pick up steam again.
The Iran–US–Israel rift is about brinkmanship, where all concerned are seeking to maximise on one another’s domestic weaknesses and international gains. As much as they want to appear to be reaching the point of no return, their moves are geared to stopping well short of it. Just as they know the utility value of such rhetoric, they are equally aware of the catastrophic consequences of a conflict. All that has been, is, and will be played out in future is likely to follow the same script. In the current context, as much as domestic compulsions of all the concerned parties heightened tension, the same factors cooled tempers too. If the United States wished to take effective military action, its best bet was while its troops were in Iraq. As much as the build-up to the next presidential election generated its recent hawkish stance, its current economic and political woes would deter it from risking any misadventure.
Israel has lapsed into inaction due to the lack of consensus among its politicians and public; Palestinian moves towards unilateral declaration of statehood; Washington’s own inaction and lack of endorsement for Israeli action; post-Arab Spring political scenarios and international realignments; and uncertainty about what military action would actually yield, with theories ranging from partial to complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear programme, to lack of Iran’s retaliatory power, to full-scale regional chaos with the involvement of Iran’s allies.
Iran is in the throes of decades-long international sanctions, which has limited its economic growth; the political tussle between the supreme leader and the president continues; though it appears subdued, the impact of the last presidential poll and its aftermath still lingers among a considerable section of the population; and the strength of its allies is being tested because of the events in Syria and Turkey’s strategic shift in stance vis-à-vis Iran. For their part, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries continue to be victims of an ideological war. While they are the principal stakeholders, they remain fringe players, relying on the action or inaction of others, rather than actively contribute to any conflict resolution process.
While the catastrophic consequences of military action need no elaboration, it is worth pondering over the utility of sanctions. How long will sanctions as an instrument of threat, coercion and pressure serve the endgame? History is replete with sanctions failing to yield results, with Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Zimbabwe being recent examples. On the contrary, Libya exposed the double standards of some countries that took the lead to impose sanctions and then reversed their stand to strike lucrative economic deals. This lends weight to the fears of a ‘grand bargain’ at some point with Iran too. It is here that a change of tack is worth considering — one that is beyond both sanctions and military strike options. This untried path could be an Asian political solution, where the GCC countries and Iran are the principal negotiators, facilitated by influential Asian countries — China, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, and India, among others.
Turkey already has a proposal, which was formulated with Brazil and Iran in 2010, that could become the starting point again. It is a trial balloon worth pursuing, even as the ‘more trusted’ Western approach searches for elusive results.
As the economic balance of power shifts from West to East, it is certain to impact the political and security dynamics of Asia in the mid-to-long term. In this context, developing a robust pan-Asian cooperative approach is important. Since Iran and the GCC countries are permanent neighbours, it is in their best interests to resolve their differences through a win-win formula, however daunting it is. While this crisis serves as the trigger, the interdependent bigger picture is enhanced Gulf peace and security, which is crucial to Asia translating its potential into reality in the 21st century.
Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst, and author of “Boom amid Gloom — The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf” (Ithaca, 2011)
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