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Dangerous dance in the Gulf

The US and Iran have thus far reacted to a string of provocative moves more in word than deed, but the potential for miscalculation is high

The summer has passed without any of the direct military clashes in the Gulf between US and Iranian forces that many had feared. But the autumn holds scant prospect of an early resolution of the crisis, and thus for reducing the risk of even an accidental misstep into war.

And two external factors risk further ratcheting up the tension—the impact of the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) withdrawal from the battle against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen; and the 2020 US presidential election.

Any number of incidents over the past few months could have triggered a military confrontation in the Gulf. President Donald Trump in June came close to ordering airstrikes against Iranian targets in retaliation for the shooting down of an American drone. In August, the Houthis—apparently with Iranian assistance—carried out a drone attack on the giant Shaybah oil field in south-eastern Saudi Arabia, close to the UAE border.

Thus far, each side has been content to prod the other, without wanting to trigger a conflict. For the US, this has taken the form of reinforcing sanctions and building up its military presence, including the deployment of around 500 troops in Saudi Arabia. Iran has used its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to harass and attack tankers in the Gulf, and its regional proxies to launch strikes on targets in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

President Trump and the Iranian leadership "have both made it fairly clear that they want to avoid escalation", says Ian Black, senior fellow at the London School of Economics' Middle East Centre. "But there is clearly a serious risk of miscalculation, or that each side will fail to read the other's red lines."

Trump came to power on the promise of making ‘America great again' rather than waging wars overseas. The thrust of his Gulf policy, despite the huge military build-up, is to defeat Iran economically by starving it of oil revenue. The prospect of the inevitable loss of American lives in a war with Iran is not one that an incumbent president would relish a year before standing for re-election.

The Iranian leadership knows this. Hurting as the country is from the effect of US sanctions, Iran is not prepared to enter negotiations in a way that would allow Trump to claim a US victory ahead of next November's poll. Iran insists that the lifting of sanctions is a pre-condition for talks, and that Tehran is not interested in negotiating a new nuclear deal. Rather, it wants the US to re-commit to the existing one—a strong possibility if Trump were defeated and the Democrats came to power.

Crisis complexity grows

In Black's view, the chances of near-term negotiations to end the crisis are slim, for those in Tehran urging dialogue and compromise are in a weak position. "President Rouhani staked everything on the [nuclear] agreement—but so far he has only seen the country's economic crisis deepen," he says. "The logic of his position is being undermined. Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC may be content to expose American perfidy, preach resistance and damn the consequences."

Iran also sees the Yemen crisis as an increasingly effective diplomatic lever in the Gulf crisis and relations with its Arab neighbours. The UAE's military withdrawal from Yemen leaves Saudi Arabia as the sole combatant in a five-year-long war that no side can win. Pressure on the Saudi leadership to find a compromise with both the Houthis and their Iranian backers is increasing, with the complexity of the Gulf crisis as a whole increasing.

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