Peace beyond the piracy
US President Donald Trump’s determination to put ‘America first’ may have won him popularity at home but it has caused fractures in America’s relations with its Asian allies, most notably China and India.
One country hoping these rifts will widen is Iran, which regards Trump as a dangerous foe, responsible for an economic war through sanctions that are inflicting severe pain on its people: a worsening recession, entrenched unemployment and spiralling inflation. Yet it seems that Iran is the one increasingly cut adrift, with America pressurising Asian countries, as well as the EUbloc, to isolate Iran still further, India, Japan and South Korea have massively scaled back, albeit reluctantly, their purchases of Iranian oil.
To begin with, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani sent agents out on diplomatic missions to try to lure the customers back. But things turned decidedly undiplomatic when oil tankers registered in Taiwan and Japan suffered hits from limpet mines in the Gulf. The friction then intensified on July 19 with the seizure by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, triggering an international crisis.
The mainly Indian crew have since been released, allaying fears that they could have been used as pawns in a power game. But the tensions continue, with Iran’s response to escalating US sanctions increasing the risk of a military face-off between the two sworn enemies.
Few countries have had such a hawkish policy on Iran as the United States. Even Britain, a longtime and loyal US ally, has called for a gentler approach. But leaders are running out of patience with Iran’s President Rouhani, who ordered members of his elite forces to seize an unarmed merchant vessel by force. While Iran has legitimate concerns over the stepping up of US sanctions – which followed America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s subsequent breaching of the terms of the agreement – this was a brazen act of piracy by Iran that must be challenged. Almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which lies off the south coast of Iran. It cannot be endangered by Iranian aggression.
Britain’s incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson now faces, alongside the thorny issue of Brexit the challenge of how to tackle this crisis in the Gulf. Johnson says the Royal Navy will escort ships which pass through the strait, while Donald Trump and his Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper would like other allies to join a united front against the Iranians. Yet America’s ability to coordinate a multinational campaign in the Middle East is limited. Its previous forays in the region have not gone well, and its approach to foreign policy under President Trump has placed strain on its allegiances throughout the Middle East and Asia.
Another factor is that the relationship between two key US allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea – is in a parlous state; so poor, in fact, that they are embroiled in the first battles of a trade war. The US National Security advisor John Bolton has been charged by Mr Trump with trying to bring them both on board against Iran, but he stands next to no chance of healing decades of bitter rivalry. The best he can hope for is that the leaders of South Korea and Japan offer supportive words and agree to heighten surveillance of the shipping lanes, which are so crucial to their energy supplies.
China will resist any military build-up led by the Americans. One of Iran’s closest allies, China has defied US sanctions to continue tapping into Iranian oil. It is quite prepared to do business with Iran without pressing for any regime change and this offers Iran the precious hope of being rescued from recession.
India’s role in this is also significant. In April, the Trump administration told India that it would no longer have an exemption on US sanctions on Iran. That forced India to write off a significant investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, which it was using to circumvent Pakistan.
India alone cannot untangle the complex problems of the region. But it can offer help diplomatically, as it maintains close ties with Iran but also shares many strategic interests with the United States. That gives it a unique responsibility to play an active peacemaking role in the explosive environment of the Strait of Hormuz and, along with other nations, help to keep oil flowing safely through the Gulf and lower the temperature in this heated situation.