During the night on Sunday, 26 January, five Katyusha rockets were launched on the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Three of them allegedly made a direct hit with at least one striking the embassy dining hall. This event followed the massive demonstrations in Baghdad demanding the U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Indeed, the tensions in the Middle East are unlikely to dissipate any time soon… Hopefully however, they won’t lead to the “horrendous” and “devastating” world war that a bi-partisan panel commissioned by the U.S. Congress predicted might break out within four years.
In an interview on CBS This Morning earlier this month, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell spoke about the recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East. He said that while the ‘overt’ part of the war may be over, the ‘covert’ war was ongoing.
The hostilities are unlikely to persist, not because of periodic skirmished among rival groups but because of the larger policy objectives of the main regional and global powers. And what are those larger policy objectives? In August of 2018, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Wes Mitchell briefed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In his statement, Mitchell said that the central aim of Administration’s foreign policy was to defend U.S. domination of Eurasian landmass as the foremost U.S. national security interest, and to prepare the nation for this challenge. He further stated that confronting Russia would be among the highest foreign policy priorities for the administration. All 50 U.S. missions in Europe and Eurasia had been tasked with developing, coordinating and executing tailored action plans for rebuffing Russian influence in their host countries.
Three months after this briefing, a bipartisan commission appointed by the U.S. Congress issued a report titled, “Providing for the Common Defense,” which endorsed the Pentagon plans to prepare for a “great-power” war against Russia, China, or both. The report stated that such a war might break out within four years and would be “horrendous,” and “devastating.”
These reports and countless statements by various US and NATO officials reveal a strong pro-war inclination on the part of a powerful segment of the western foreign policy establishment whose actions may favour trigger-happy responses to the festering Middle Eastern tensions. Whether cooler heads will prevail remains to be seen, but even if we avoid a full-scale war, the region’s instability could lead to adverse economic and political crises worldwide. As we have seen in the recent days, U.S. assassination of Iran’s Major General Qassim Suleimani caused major tremors in financial and commodities markets, particularly oil and precious metals. These events may have foreshadowed possibly more drastic market reactions in the future.
While tensions have eased somewhat since then, the sheer uncertainty is having its effects. For example, the war risk premiums that oil tanker owners pay to transit the Persian Gulf have surged of late. When Iran retaliated for the Suleimani assassination by launching rocket attacks at U.S. Iraqi bases, several major tanker operators suspended sailing through the Straits of Hormuz. To secure the passage of tankers, the UK deployed two Royal Navy warships to the Straits. Amidst all this, tanker freight rates soared from around $19,000 in September to $80,000 -$120,000 now. A few weeks ago, they reached nearly $300,000.
While we can’t predict what comes next, the risks loom large. As Mike Morell stated last week, even if Iran and the Trump administration wish to step back from the brink of war, “Iranian proxies could act” and attack U.S. interests in Iraq, whether Iran wants that or not. This is exactly what we are now seeing in Iraq. Amidst such tensions, any incident – real or staged, intentional or unintentional – could reignite the regional powder keg and precipitate a large-scale military conflagration with devastating effects for the region and for western economies.
As we pray for peace and hope for the best, we must demand our leaders to pull away from the brink of war. Russia’s president Putin has caled for an urgent summit of the five founding members of the United Nations to work together to diffuse the tensions and put forward a robust framework for conflict resolution and the defense of peace. We must demand all sides to earnestly join in this effort.