Strategic Fulcrum in Whirlwind: The Gulf Regimes on a Short Fuse?  

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The Persian Gulf region has become a veritable powder keg with the United States taking a more aggressive position on Iran, while Saudi Arabia, UAE and other regional powers keep lining up behind Washington with an equally aggressive mood. The unfolding strategic scenario in the Gulf flashes multiple narratives, events and interventions. It all started when the US pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 followed by a year-long threats and intimidations on Iran. President Donald Trump always made it a point to put the Gulf regimes on tenterhooks with his aggressive coterie in Washington ballooning virtually every issue related to Iran. ‘Trump-Bolton-Pompeo axis’ is apparently operating like a potential war-machine in the region—pumping/deploying warheads and forces in strategic locations in an unprecedented manner. Everyone knows that the script for ‘action’ has already been written by John R. Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor(NSA), four years ago, which more or less reflected the core arguments of George Bush in his 2002 State of the Union message regarding the ‘Axis of evil.’

Writing in The New York Times in 2015, Bolton, who was then a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that “for years, experts worried that the Middle East would face an uncontrollable nuclear-arms race if Iran ever acquired weapons capability.” He said that like “in other nuclear proliferation cases like India, Pakistan and North Korea, America and the West were guilty of inattention when they should have been vigilant. But failing to act in the past is no excuse for making the same mistakes now.” Referring to President Obama’s approach on Iran, Bolton noted that Obama “has brought a bad situation to the brink of catastrophe.” He continues:

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed…An attack need not destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran (Bolton 2015).

Widely called a conservative ‘military hawk’ across media and academic circles, Bolton’s track record is fairly known. The former Attorney and the US Ambassador to the UN during Bush’s regime (2005-6), Bolton has been widely criticized for his extremely dangerous position on a wide range of issues in global politics such as the war on Iraq, regime change in Syria, Libya, Iran, North Korea etc. Shortly after taking up the present position as NSA in April 2018, Bolton began setting the background for the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – as the Iran deal was known– which effectively contained Iran’s nuclear programme and thereby impeding all efforts on the part of Tehran to go for a weapon’s option.

The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA last year was a major trigger in the geopolitical landscape of the Persian Gulf. The reason given for the withdrawal was that “it failed to protect America’s national security interests.” Trump said that the JCPOA “enriched the Iranian regime and enabled its malign behavior, while at best delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapons and allowing it to preserve nuclear research and development.” He also began the process of re-imposing sanctions which was expected to “target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as its energy, petrochemical, and financial sectors.” Trump also warned that “those who fail to wind down such activities with Iran by the end of the period will risk severe consequences” (US, White House 2018). This was obviously a warning to China, India and other countries who maintained commercial ties with Tehran. However, even at that stage, India, the European Union (EU) and other parties to the deal had expressed concern over the US pull out (Seethi 2018). The nuclear deal was signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, US-plus Germany), and the EU in Vienna on 14 July  2015. The major objective of JCPOA was to curb the Iranian nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions (US, Department of State 2015). Immediately after the US decision, Iran had sought assurances from the remaining signatories that its interests should be guaranteed or it would go back to resume nuclear activities (Seethi 2018).

In the wake of the US pullout, there was a widespread feeling that the US withdrawal would amount to violating international norms. In a statement, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had indicated that the 28-nation bloc would be united in preserving the international nuclear deal. She said that member states were closely coordinating their efforts “to protect the economic investments of European businesses that have legitimately invested and engaged in Iran” during the past three years since the nuclear deal was agreed (The National, 28 May 2018). Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed that Germany and other EU nations would continue to support the deal (Deutsche Welle [DW] 9 May 2018). French President Macron said that he regretted the United State’s decision and admitted that “the nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake” after speaking with Trump (France 24, 8 May 2018). Russia and China also expressed their concerns over Washington’s decision to leave the deal.

The US already deployed an aircraft carrier attack group and B-52 bombers to the Gulf, pointing to the “threats” from Teheran. The Iranian leaders have accused Washington of “psychological warfare.” When the US blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a “terrorist group,” Iran immediately responded by calling the US a “state sponsor of terrorism” and designated US Central Command and its forces a “terrorist group.” Iran also announced that it officially stopped some commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal following an order from its National Security Council. Meanwhile, Iran notified China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain of its decision to halt some commitments under the nuclear deal. Under the JCPOA, Iran was allowed to produce low-enriched uranium with a 300kg limit, and produce heavy water with a stock capped around 130 tonnes. It could ship the excess amounts out of the country for storage or sale. An official in Iran’s atomic energy body said that Iran now has no limit for the production of enriched uranium and heavy water. In a speech on national television on 8 May, Rouhani said Iran wanted to negotiate new terms with the remaining partners in the deal, but acknowledged the situation was dire. “We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said. “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it” (see Teheran Times, 13, 14 and 15 May 2019). Meanwhile, the EU and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain said they were still committed to the deal but would not accept ultimatums from Tehran.

In a statement on 5 May 2019, John Bolton, announced that the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.  The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces (US, White House 2019a). On 8 May, Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, reminded that the US “would never be held hostage to the Iranian regime’s nuclear blackmail and that we would aggressively seek to address the full range of Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He said:

We have imposed the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime, designating nearly 1,000 individuals and entities in the past year. The Trump Administration has taken Iran’s oil exports to historic lows, and stopped issuing Significant Reduction Exceptions to importers of Iranian oil, effectively zeroing out purchases of Iranian crude. In May, the United States tightened restrictions that impede Iran’s ability to reconstitute its past nuclear weapons program and prevent Iran from shortening the time it would take to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Today, President Trump announced a new sanctions authority targeting trade in Iranian metals. This targets Iran’s largest non-oil related export and further degrades the regime’s ability to fund terror and instability in the Middle East (U.S., Department of State 2019).

Pompeo said that America is not countering Iran alone. Since our withdrawal from the deal, our allies and partners have stepped up to counter Iranian aggression with us. We have acted with countries from nearly every continent to disrupt Iran’s illicit oil shipping operations. The European Union passed new sanctions against Iranian entities in response to two foiled terror plots last year. Other nations have responded to Iran’s malign activity by recalling ambassadors, expelling Iranian diplomats, eliminating visa-free travel, or denying landing rights to Mahan Air  (Ibid). In a statement on 10 May, the Acting Secretary of Defense approved the movement of USS Arlington (LPD-24) and a Patriot battery to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) as part of the command’s original request for forces from earlier this week. These assets will join the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a U.S. Air Force bomber task force in the Middle East region in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests ( U.S., Department of Defence 2019).

Trump’s Executive Orders Issued on 8 May stated that It remains the policy of the United States to deny Iran all paths to both a nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and to counter the totality of Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East.  It is also the policy of the United States to deny the Iranian government revenue, including revenue derived from the export of products from Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum, and copper sectors, that may be used to provide funding and support for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorist groups and networks, campaigns of regional aggression, and military expansion (US, White House 2019d). In a statement Trump said that   A lot can change in a year when we make bold decisions to defend America’s national security. Because of our action, the Iranian regime is struggling to fund its campaign of violent terror, as its economy heads into an unprecedented depression, government revenue dries up, and inflation spirals out of control. We are successfully imposing the most powerful maximum pressure campaign ever witnessed, which today’s action will further strengthen. He also said that the US  has taken several steps to increase the effectiveness of our campaign. We designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and increased the pressure on Iran ten-fold through full application of United States sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Today’s action targets Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals—10 per cent of its export economy—and puts other nations on notice that allowing Iranian steel and other metals into your ports will no longer be tolerated  (US, White House 2019c). The White House claimed that this “maximum pressure campaign is working, having already denied the regime direct access to more than $10 billion in oil revenue since May 2018. It also stated that the Trump Administration “will continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leaders change their destructive behavior and return to the negotiating table” (US, White House 2019b).

Paul R. Pillar, Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University, wrote that  National Security Advisor John Bolton, aided by his comrade-in-arms Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is doing everything possible to instigate a war with Iran. Naked aggression as a means of starting such a war may be too much for even Bolton to pull off, so the strategy has been to try to pressure and goad Iran into doing something—anything—that could be construed as a casus belli. So far, no doubt to Bolton’s frustration, Iran has exercised remarkable restraint in the face of unrelenting and escalating hostility from the Trump administration (Pillar 2019).

France24 reported that In the run-up to what is now widely acknowledged to have been the disastrous 2003 Iraq invasion, Bolton — then the under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs — was one of Washington’s most energetic pro-war cheerleaders. Now, analysts say, he’s showing similar enthusiasm for action with respect to longtime US, Israeli and Saudi foe Iran. The Pentagon’s dispatch to the region over the last few days of an aircraft carrier group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers was not meant to be subtle. Bolton warned of “unrelenting force” in response to any attack by Iran (France24 2019). Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate, responded to a New York Times report about the Trump administration’s potential plan to send thousands of troops to the Middle East, saying national security adviser John Bolton “was one of the architects of the war in Iraq” (CNN 2019). A senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria. A few hours later, the United States Central Command issued an unusual rebuke: The remarks from the British official — Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region” (The New York Times, 14 May 2019).

India’s Options

Hearing the news of US pull out from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had said that India, a long-time importer of oil from Iran, would only comply with United Nations-mandated sanctions and “not any country-specific sanctions.” India’s immediate responses on this question indicated that New Delhi found it difficult to make any compromise on the current transactions with Iran. Trump’s decision may have long-term consequences in the background of India’s growing oil imports, especially when Iran continued to be India’s third largest source of supply of crude oil, after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It was also at this time that India had made its commitment to participate in the development of the Chabahar Port project (India, MEA 2018c). Given India’s strenuous relations with Pakistan, New Delhi saw the Chabahar port as an alternative route not only to Afghanistan, but also to resource-rich Central Asia. India was keen to open alternative routes to Afghanistan ever since China took over Pakistan’s Gwadar Port (a warm-water, deep-sea port located in the Arabian Sea at Gwadar in Baluchistan province), which is about 76 km from the Chabahar port. The Chabahar port, surrounded by a free trade zone, is vital particularly since Islamabad does not permit transit facility from India to Afghanistan (Seethi 2015). However, in the context of the new actions taken by the Trump Administration, New Delhi came under further pressure. This was fairly clear when the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited New Delhi for talks with top Indian officials. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reportedly told Zarif that the decision on purchasing Iranian oil would be taken after the General Elections being held in India.

Meanwhile a series of events in the region indicated that the situation might get worsened if diplomacy fails to deal with the multiple issues in place. Already the reports of Saudi, Norwegian oil tankers being ‘hit’ from still undisclosed sources hinted that the strategic calculus of the Gulf regimes might run the risk of setbacks. Hours after a US ‘warning’ came this ‘sabotage’ in the sensitive area of the Gulf. It was reported to have happened not far off from UAE’s Fujairah’s port which is about 140 km south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. Teheran already warned that a high level operation gets underway with the deployment of US warships and bombers in the region and the purpose is to create an artificial conflict scenario to fan the flames of war.

On 14 May, Saudi Arabia said armed drones struck two of its oil pumping stations on the east-west Petroline pipeline in an apparent long-range attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, some 320 km west of the capital, Riyadh. The state-run oil company, Aramco, temporarily shut down the pipeline, which had suffered minor damage from a fire. Houthi rebels in the neighbouring Yemen claimed responsibility for the hit. They have been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen since 2015 and are believed to have received support from Iran. This has been followed by a Saudi-UAE led coalition air raids on residential areas and Houthi rebel military targets in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The coalition is reported to have carried out 11 attacks on the capital in all, among 19 across rebel-held territory on 16 May, the Houthi-run Masirah TV channel reported. It blamed “aircraft of the (Saudi-led) aggression.” Saudi-owned broadcaster Al Arabiya quoted a coalition statement as saying the Saudi coalition had launched an operation aimed at “neutralizing the ability of the Houthi militia to carry out acts of aggression.” This came two days after the Iran-supported rebels claimed drone attacks that shut a key oil pipeline in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Even as tensions mount, the views within and between the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) seem to be different. While Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain remain determined to contain Iran and its regional strategies, Qatar does not seem to be interested in involving too much in the tension with Iran. This is obviously because of Doha’s geoeconomic and geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Iran after a Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar which began in June 2017. Oman does not like any move to disrupt its good relations with Iran, while Kuwait has claimed itself to be a go-between vis-à-vis Tehran.

Meanwhile the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on 16 May that the US would continue its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, adding the US would like to see “behavioural change” from the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Also on the same day, the chairmen of three Congressional committees on national security pressed U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo “to explain whether a Trump administration arms control report was politicized and slanted assessments about Iran” (Reuters 17 May 2019). However, Iran knows well that the ‘psychological war’ against it has larger implications for the domestic and regional situations. Speaking in Tokyo on 16 May, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the United States of instigating an ‘unacceptable’ escalation of tensions as Washington pledged to continue a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. He said that Iran would not hold talks with Washington but added it would act with caution following the recent deployment of US military hardware to the Gulf region. Iran (Al Jazeera, 17 May 2019).

The emerging situation in the Gulf region has potential to ruin regional peace and stability even as the Saudi-UAE coalition is out to play second fiddle to Washington’s long-term strategy in the region. But, it will be a much harder scenario unlike the Iraq war which triggered many things in the region.  However, the Gulf regimes also appear to be reconciled to the fact that any situation that helps increase oil price in the context of the recession-hit regional economies would be to their advantage.  Thought this might seem to be a dangerous game, the regimes in place in major GCC countries know that containing Iran has many geoeconomic and geopolitical advantages—going beyond the traditional Sunni-Shia rivalry. ‘Trump-Bolton-Pompeo axis’ has scripted this agenda well and the major regimes in the region translate this into a geopolitical reality.


Bolton, John R.(2015): “ To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” The New York Times, 26  March, available at

CNN (2019): “Sanders: Bolton hasn’t learned lessons of war in Iraq,” available at

France24 (2019): “Bolton beats war drums in US-Iran standoff, France24, 14 May, available at


India, MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) (2018a): “Official Spokesperson’s response to media queries on the recent developments regarding the JCPOA, May 09, 2018,” available at


India, MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) (2018b): “Transcript of Weekly Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson, May 10, available at


India, MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) (2018c): “India-Iran Joint Statement during Visit of the President of Iran to India, February 17, 2018” available at


India, MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) (2013): “Joint Press Statement on 17th India-Iran Joint Commission Meeting, May 4, 2013,” available at


Pillar, Paul R. (2019): “John Bolton is doing everything he can to get the US into a new war,” Business Insider, 8 May, available at


Seethi, K.M. (2018): “India, Iran and the strategic Implications of the US pull out from the JCPOA,” Countercurrents, 3 June, available at


Seethi, K.M. (2015): “The Global South and Non-Alignment: Challenges of Indian Diplomacy in the Gulf,” The Journal of Political Economy and Fiscal Federalism, Vol.1.


US, White House (2019a) “Statement from the National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, May 5, 2019,” available at


US, White House (2019b) “President Donald J. Trump Is Cutting Off Funds the Iranian Regime Uses to Support Its Destructive Activities Around the World,” Fact Sheet, 8 May, available at


US, White House (2019c): “Statement from President Donald J. Trump Regarding Imposing Sanctions with Respect to the Iron, Steel, Aluminum, and Copper Sectors of Iran,” Statement and Releases, 8 May, available at


US, White House (2019d): “Executive Order on Imposing Sanctions with Respect to the Iron, Steel, Aluminum, and Copper Sectors of Iran,” Executive Orders Issued on 8 May, available at


US, White House (2018): “President Donald J. Trump is Ending United States Participation in an Unacceptable Iran Deal, May 9, 2018,” available at


U.S., Department of Defence (2019): “Statement from the Department of Defense on Additional Forces to U.S. Central Command,” News Release, 10 May, available at


U.S., Department of State (2019): “Press Statement by Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, Washington, DC, 8 May, available at


US, Department of State (2015): “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,”   available at


This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy (   The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]


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