The currently escalating round of brinkmanship in the Middle East is potentially more devastating than anything seen during the Cold War era. The fluctuating numbers of players, their varying thresholds of restraint, and their clashing perceptions of national interests have contributed to the creation of unquantifiable trigger points. This is irresponsible brinkmanship. —– If any portion of this picture gets out of hand, there would be consequences for Central Asia and not just because of geographical proximity.
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First, let’s look at the origins of the term brinkmanship.
Even though the idea of brinkmanship may have existed since the earliest days of human history, the origin of this term can be traced to an interview with the former US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, by the Life magazine in 1956. He said that in diplomacy, “if you are scared to go to the brink [of war], you are lost.”
Since then, brinkmanship was the term attached to every deteriorating situation between the USA and USSR. For instance, the placement of nuclear missiles by the USSR in Cuba was called an act of brinkmanship.
In an article for the Life Magazine, Dulles defined his policy of brinkmanship as “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.”
Under the Eisenhower Doctrine, a Middle Eastern country could request American economic assistance or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression. This added to the concept and scope of brinkmanship.
The idea of ‘Massive Retaliation’ was a natural outcome of the notion of brinkmanship. It was an all-or-nothing strategy. It was the threat to turn the Soviet Union into a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours. … Furthermore, and more concretely Massive Retaliation meant the possible deterrence of an all-out attack.
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If it is necessary to assign a starting point to the current round of brinkmanship in the Middle East, it would be May 2018 when President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Simultaneously, he started throwing different kinds of sanctions at Iran, with the obvious and stated purpose of breaking the economy of the country and cornering its government.
In addition to the sanctions, the USA has placed B-52 bombers in some Gulf countries and the USS attack group Abraham Lincoln has been moved to the region.
Frustrated by the inability of everyone to keep the nuclear deal in working order, Iran has exceeded the 3.67% limit placed on uranium enrichment in 2015 deal, bringing it to 4.5%. It has also breached the 300-kg limit on the volume of enriched Uranium. — These are rather insignificant details because it doesn’t bring Iran any closer to producing a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future: to produce even one nuclear device, there should be at least 1200 kilogram of low enriched Uranium and the ability to enrich it to 90%. However, this is a powerful signal of political defiance.
Trump and Pompeo have marketed aggressively to choke the economy of Iran by all possible means.
Iran shot down last month a US navy spy drone, adding a booster to the already-tense situation.
The British marines, in aid to the Gibraltar authorities, have seized a tanker on the ‘suspicion’ that it was carrying oil for the Syrian regime in violation of the EU sanctions. Iran is outraged about the situation but purposely vague about the ownership of the tanker or the cargo.
Claims were made on 10 July 2019 that five gunboats belonging to the IRGC (Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) tried to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf but backed off when confronted by a British warship. Iran denies the entire narrative.
Some recent attacks on the commercial tankers near the Strait of Hormuz have been blamed on Iran but no one has presented any credible evidence so far to pin these attacks on Iran.
The so-called allies of the USA, initially cheering every move of Trump, are now treading rather carefully. — They would like Trump to punish Iran severely but without risking any spillover to their own physical or economic terrain.
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Because of the combined effect of brinkmanship, we are just one matchstick away from a raging inferno.
There is the need to admit soberly that many players have the ability to put an active conflict into motion but none has the capacity to stop it once it gets moving. Central Asia will suffer by default.
Here are some of the likely consequences for Central Asia if Iran is goaded mindlessly and provoked ceaselessly to the trigger point:
- The global oil market will be hit hard. Initially, the rising prices would act like a blessing for some of the Central Asian economies that are significant producers of oil but soon it will turn into a curse when a new wave of economic calamity gains power and accelerates.
- Iran is a main territory for trade between Central Asia and many parts of the world including the Middle East. The loss of access to this territory because of the conflict would create economic constraints on Central Asia.
- The powers trying to press Iran would bring pressure on Central Asia to contribute to economic isolation of Iran. This would damage the position of neutrality the region generally maintains. It would also endanger the balance the region exercises in its interaction with China, Russia, the USA, and Europe.
- Escalation in Iran would impact negatively the situation in Afghanistan. Central Asia cannot escape the consequences.
- If the conflict spreads laterally, it may create the shortage of food items in Iran. This would open the way for smuggling of food items from Central Asia to Iran.
- If the conflict turns into a full-fledged war, the damaging factors for Central Asia would be various and many. It is difficult to wrap the mind around the possibilities.
It is, therefore, of utmost importance that Central Asia should use all the political and diplomatic means at its disposal to help normalize the situation. /// nCa, 12 July 2019