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Hormuz Hostages and ‘Caution and Foresight’

Hormuz Hostages and ‘Caution and Foresight’

Monday, 22 July, 2019 - 09:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Fifty years after man set foot on the moon for the first time and the hopes that emerged from that scene, the Middle East seems to be stuck in old and new conflicts that deprive it of the opportunity to embark on the train of natural states engaged in development and progress.

In these five decades, the Palestinians have not found their state… Nor the Kurds their rights. Fear has retained the title of first citizen in the region. Countries are worried about their borders, or fearing surprises inside their home. Governments are unable to meet development goals. Modern institutions are incapable of coping with existing problems and predicting imminent ones… It is a painful region full of conflicts, waves of refugees and suicidal tendencies that are destroying it and threatening the whole world.

If this region had previously been worried about its wealth and land from lurking foreign powers, it is now afraid of the adventurous approach of countries dreaming of grabbing the title of the great local state. A quick look at the region shows how it is crowded with small mobile armies, rockets, drones and reckless policies.

Last week, one had to follow two events at the same time. The celebration of the anniversary of the first man on the moon and the crisis that erupted near the Strait of Hormuz, with all its local and international implications.

As oil tankers became the victims of a new hostage crisis, people in the region and the world remembered an old similar crisis that unfolded 40 years ago, when the Iranian revolution took Americans hostage at their country's embassy in Tehran. Some are quick to conclude that the region has not changed, nor has Iran.

As I watched the video released by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard about the British oil tanker’s capture, I remembered what I had heard on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka. The Japanese speaker was trying to explain his country’s current concerns.

“Japan lives in a difficult region and you do not choose your neighbors,” he said, referring on the one hand to North Korea's behavior and its repeated celebrations of its latest military production, and on the other hand, to the Chinese rise and its economic, political and possibly security implications on his country.

He said countries should be both rational and firm. Rational, to avoid engaging in any escalation resorted to by a mischievous or reckless neighbor; and firm, by possessing elements of strength that can deter players who like to play on the edge of the abyss.

The elements of power, in his opinion, are to develop your own strengths to defend yourself, and at the same time, forge alliances that form a protective umbrella against adventures. He considered that the most difficult challenge a country can face is dealing with a worried and aggressive neighbor, who follows a path that does not comply with international values and the principles and resolutions of the United Nations.

The video released by the Revolutionary Guard poses many questions. Why did Iran choose a British tanker? Is it about the release of the Iranian tanker detained in Gibraltar? Is it precisely because Britain is overwhelmed these days by the search for a successor to Theresa May, fearing a Brexit without agreement? Or is it because Britain today is no longer the Britain of the past, which sent its fleet in the early 1980s to reclaim the Falkland Islands and defeat the Argentine generals who tried to humiliate the former empire? Is it because Britain can no longer wage war alone, and because Donald Trump will not wage a war for Britain?

Many questions arise: Why did Iran choose the path of escalation? Did it make sure that Trump meant what he said when he announced that he did not want to go to war? Did it consider this step as a show of force that awakens national feelings and distracts its citizens from their suffering due to the unprecedented sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iranian oil exports?

Did Tehran want to provide an example of the possibility of resorting to a partial closure of the Strait of Hormuz with a series of incidents that prompt countries to advise their tankers to avoid the trap of the strait? Does Tehran want to change the rules of the game so that the world’s only demand is for it to stop meddling with the Strait of Hormuz, instead of demanding that it put its ballistic arsenal and regional policy on the table in any future negotiations?

The countries of the region find it difficult to understand Iranian behavior, which is far from relying on the conventional international norms. Tehran claims that it wants the withdrawal of the forces of major powers from the region, but acts in a way that justifies these countries to strengthen their presence.

The bombing or seizure of tankers unequivocally confirm that the problem with Iran lies in its behavior before it its nuclear ambitions. This is why the countries of the region cannot but take all the necessary measures to strike a balance that prevents a slide into war.

In this context, it is possible to understand Saudi Arabia’s decision to accept to host US forces “to raise the level of joint action in defending the security and stability of the region and ensuring peace.” Saudi Arabia, which has openly declared that it does not want war, sees US troops as “a continuation of military cooperation between the two countries, which aims to keep pressure on Iran and prevent it from further escalating” the tension.

The region has no interest in a new war. But the conditions for stability do not seem to be available. Iran has not changed and continues to reject international norms. Forty years after Americans were held hostage at their country’s embassy in Tehran, oil tankers are being held hostage near the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran is betting that the decision of war is not appropriate for Trump, who is aspiring for a second presidential term. Some believe that the sanctions are painful enough to tempt it into taking risks. Others believe that straining the line of contention with the West and its allies is a policy it uses to renew the cohesion of its regime.

But this type of game is not suitable for all times and places. The brink of war is fraught with dangers. Tehran should take advantage of its foreign minister’s advice to others to deal with “caution and foresight.”

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