Militarisation of the Persian Gulf

The Persian Gulf is one of the most complex and unpredictable regions of the world. The regional security of the Persian Gulf is under severe turmoil since Trump’s unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal. Since then, Tehran has rolled back its nuclear commitments and Houthis have increased the frequency of attacks on Saudi Arabia. Seizing oil tankers, threats of war and establishment of a maritime coalition under the US umbrella to protect oil tankers in the area has made the region more vulnerable, as a minor act of aggression can disturb the security and peace in the region. Needless to say that the recent American reinforcements in the region have already disturbed the balance of power in the Persian Gulf on an unprecedented scale. Recently, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran announced the “Hormuz Peace Initiative” in his United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speech, apparently ‘to enhance peace and security in the region’. But will the Saudi-US nexus appreciate the proposed initiative? Or is it really an initiative that can bring all the contestants on the same page?

An analysis of the Hormuz peace initiative suggests that it is far from an initiative can bring conflicting parties on a dialogue table. It is largely seen as a counter move by Iran against the US maritime coalition. It seems clear that Tehran has been feeling the heat of the grim security situation in the region amid attacks on Saudi oil facilities. This is why it has not only announced the counter maritime initiative but also released Stana Impero, the seized British flagged oil tanker after two months to calm down heightened tensions.

Given the ongoing regional environment, it is unlikely that any country would agree to join the Iranian peace initiative. The two Gulf countries, Qatar and Oman cannot afford to join any anti-US coalition while the rest have either joined the US-led maritime coalition or are clearly tilting towards the US camp. On the contrary, the US-led maritime security initiative has been gaining momentum after the September 14 attacks on major oil installations of Saudi Arabia. The UK, Australia, Bahrain and now Saudi Arabia are members of this coalition.

The Persian Gulf region is already plagued with terrorism, extremism, and sectarian tensions. Announcements of maritime coalitions and unilateral military initiatives by arch-rivals – the US and Iran – have further added to the complexity and insecurity in the region. The critical analysis of both these initiatives suggests that these initiatives have exclusive tendencies. The US wants all regional countries excluding Iran to join its coalition, while Tehran considers that any coalition with the centrality of command under a foreign power is tantamount to interference in regional affairs. Coalitions or alliances with exclusive tendencies often proved detrimental to security. Hence, these two maritime initiatives by arch-rivals, with competing objectives will further add fuel to the fire.

The world is highly sensitive to the issue of free navigation of ships and security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLoCs) and yet, the two opposite camps are establishing coalitions to secure SLoCs and create deterrence in the region to avoid any possible blockade of oil trade routes. However, to showcase strength and influence in the Gulf waters the militarisation of the Persian Gulf can ignite another series of seizing oil tankers. Hence, rather than creating deterrence, these initiatives will create an environment conducive to war between Iran and the US.

Generally, the region’s recent security environment has been affected by two major variables, i.e. security of oil supplies and perceptions about each other’s strategic role. Oil has been used as a tool to develop a perception of each other’s strategic role. Furthermore, the definition of ‘enemy’ is one of the primary sources of contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have led to additional security measures in the region, resulting in a heavily militarised Persian Gulf. One country’s friend is the ‘enemy’ of another country. The two radically different definitions have provided an opportunity to extra-regional players to extract economic and strategic benefits from the region.

The Persian Gulf security will not be enhanced due to the establishment of new coalitions by competing groups. Rather, it will only be strengthened with dialogue, leaving behind the obsessive desire for power. The desire for regional peace can only be fulfilled by signing agreements of non-aggression and non-interference between Saudi Arabia and Iran without the involvement of any extra-regional player. Otherwise, history informs us that nations relying on other powers rarely, if ever, find any durable solution for their issues and conflicts.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the NUST and researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

cements of maritime coalitions and unilateral military initiatives by arch-rivals – the US and Iran – have further added to the complexity and insecurity in the region.

Khurram Minhas

Khurram Minhas

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