Tanker Wars: Is the Full-Scale Conflict Between Iran and the USA Canceled?
Valdai Discussio Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

The problem of growing tension between Iran and the United States today is among the most painful in the world: if a year ago, the role of a possible trigger of a major war in the Middle East was usually assigned to Syria, now the Iran-US escalation has taken its place. In this context, can the hijackings and interceptions of tankers in the Persian Gulf cause a large-scale conflict triggered by one side or the other? What are the political and economic aspects of what is happening? What should we expect in the near future? The participants in the discussion that took place at the Valdai Club on September 12 tried to answer these and other questions.

Ivan Timofeev, the discussion moderator and programme director of the Valdai Club, said at the beginning of the meeting that incidents such as the recent detentions of tankers in the Persian Gulf are multifaceted and have prompted a number of questions of a different nature: not only political or historical ones – similar events in the late 1980s led to military clashes – but also legal and economic. The complex nature of the issue allowed the participants in the discussion to focus on its various dimensions, which all came together to form an integral picture of what was happening.

Andrei Baklitsky, PIR Centre consultant, suggested in his speech fitting the current round of “tanker wars” into the more general context of relations between Iran and the West, beginning from 2015, when the “Iranian nuclear deal” was concluded. After Trump came to power, the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and launched a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. Tehran pursued a policy of strategic patience for a year, and then announced that it would begin to gradually suspend its obligations until the countries of Europe began to fulfil their obligations. Meanwhile, in May 2018, there were attacks on four tankers in the waters near the UAE, and this summer, off the coast of Gibraltar, the UK detained a tanker which had allegedly violated sanctions against Syria.

How America’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Policy Makes Iran More Adaptive
Hamidreza Azizi
Although the current pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic can be named as the toughest and most comprehensive one ever, and it has already shown its negative impacts on the Iranian economy, it would rather fall short of sparking a regime change in Iran.
Expert Opinions

“Iran’s actions throughout the past year are in sharp contrast with what it is doing now, but if you look at the results, they are positive about it,” the speaker noted. “Now it would be very strange for Iran to return to its former, all-forgiving policy. We don’t know how this situation will end, but Iran will react to everything with the use of force, balancing between the fact that the US does not want war and that it has its own interests.” Gibraltar freed the tanker in August, and on September 10, the US President’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, who had been responsible for the escalation against Iran, was ousted. This, at least to some extent, gives hope for a detente.

Konstantin Simonov, director general of the National Energy Security Fund, drew attention to the economic dimension of what is happening – in particular, its deep connection with the energy sector. According to him, the Iranian case is also noteworthy in terms of assessing the effectiveness of sanctions, which, as it now appears, can create problems for regimes, but do not have a simple and obvious political effect. Despite the long time spent under sanctions, Iran still produces and exports a lot of oil, so we have not seen the destruction of the industry. “I have a feeling,” the expert said, “that all Western sanctions against Iran and Russia have the effect of clearing the track for China, which immediately comes up with its proposals. Given the high demand for hydrocarbons, no sanctions will work in full.”

Security in the Strait of Hormuz
Russia calls on the Gulf countries to gradually abandon the military presence of external forces. Considering the economic and energy security, Moscow, on the contrary, insists on joint actions. China and Iran were the first to support the Russian idea

The expert pointed to another factor that all parties are forced to take into account in this situation, namely the possibility that Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz and “cut off” 20% of the oil consumption market in one step. “For Iran, this is a killer trump card, and Tehran constantly hints that it is ready to use it. It is not difficult to assume what could happen in this case,” Simonov said. Despite the danger of such an option, at the moment it acts as a deterrent that forces the US leadership to be extremely cautious – especially given the enormous role that trade plays in Donald Trump's foreign policy.

“If we look at the actions of Mike Pompeo and other players, we will see that their behaviour is very orderly,” agreed Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, Director of IFRI's Center for Energy. “There are limitations on both sides, but the goal is to prevent further escalation and reduce the risk of incidents.” He drew attention to the fact that the situation with Iran is very important for international security policy, which itself is absent in the Persian Gulf as a fact: it creates tension between the USA and European countries – primarily France and Germany – and between Russia and China; Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also contributed to this. Therefore, from the speaker’s point of view, it is now important for Washington to restore dialogue with Tehran, and it is within this context that we should properly take the news of a possible meeting between Trump and the Iranian president on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in late September.

The participants in the discussion agreed that a serious conflict offers advantages to neither side, neither the United States, nor even Iran, nor any third party. In general, despite a number of dangerous incidents, the situation is under control. The main thing, that should be emphasised now, is a political dialogue, and it seems to be just around the corner.