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  1. World
  2. Middle East
19 January 2024

The Iran problem

How the US is losing control of the Middle East.

By Helen Thompson

Gavin Jacobson: Before turning to the exchange of fire between the Houthis and US-led forces, let’s start with some backstory. What, historically, has been the commercial and geopolitical significance of the Red Sea for Britain?

Helen Thompson: You have to go back to the end of the 1830s, and the establishment of its colony in Aden [south Yemen], to see when Britain started developing a serious interest in and around the Red Sea. This was principally to do with the threat from piracy around the Cape of Good Hope and in the sea lanes towards India. Historically, any country that is concerned with the Europe-Asia trade route is going be interested in the Red Sea. Then, from the British point of view, what changes is when the French built the Suez Canal which opened in 1869. They did that knowingly to challenge British supremacy of the trade routes from Asia to Europe. But the British during Disraeli’s premiership in the 1870s, having been opposed to its construction, realised that they needed to control the Canal to retain commercial and seafaring supremacy. This volte face is partly what led the British to occupy Egypt from the early 1880s. From this point, Britain’s interests in the Red Sea were bound up with the Canal and the colony in Aden because control of both, and the areas around them, would ensure that no one could easily challenge British commercial interests.  

GJ: How dangerous is the contemporary situation in the Red Sea?

HT: The first issue is the danger to shipping and the impact that this could have on the world economy. An increasing number of ships, and this hasn’t changed since the American and British airstrikes on the Houthis from 11 January are no longer using the Red Sea and the Canal and are instead going back around the Cape of Good Hope. That adds time and reflects the fact that it’s difficult to get shipping insurance to travel through the Red Sea. So, you’ve got a combination of slower supply and more expensive supply. The impact of all this on inflation in western economies will take some time to play out, but there will be some effect – you can’t increase the costs of transit without consequences. Adding time for going around the Cape of Good Hope also interferes with entire production processes.

Then there is the issue of oil tankers and liquid natural gas vessels that ordinarily travel through the Red Sea. There’s less evidence that these have been impacted  by the Houthi attacks compared with container shipping but if they were to be impacted then you would enter a new level of economic difficulty because this would lead to direct increases in energy costs and a bifurcated oil market because the attacks wouldn’t effect oil moving, say, from the US eastwards, but would effect oil coming out of the Middle East and heading westwards.

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Then there is the geopolitical question, which is about the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. Well before 7 October, since at least 2019, they have shown themselves willing to attack foreign facilities and ships around the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea. There is nothing the US has been able to do over that four-year period that has changed the situation; on the contrary, the military action against the Houthis that began on 11 January has only aggravated the situation.

If you put that into a wider context, when, during the last 24 hours, Iran has launched attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan, while the Houthis cause difficulties in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, that’s a big geopolitical problem for the west. It doesn’t seem that Washington and its allies have a real grip on the situation.

GJ: What is Britain’s role in the Red Sea right now? Is it simply a case of a loyal supplicant to American empire symbolically firing off a few missiles, or is there something else going on? How does Britain’s presence as a dependable helpmeet of the US navy demonstrate its waning power on the world stage?

HT: We need to think about what American interests are particularly in relation to Iran. Part of the reason why the US was reluctant to begin airstrikes against the Houthis is because US interests primarily lie in the strategic question of how to deal with Iran rather than in deep commercial interests around trade through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. 

It’s European countries that are much more affected by trade through the Red Sea. So, the questions are, why aren’t the Europeans, and Japan for that matter, doing more here and why is the US doing anything at all? The reason is that the US wouldn’t want to cede to a European country on the bigger Iran question. For Britain, because its commercial interests are at much greater stake, what happens in the Red Sea is much more urgent. In that sense, the UK should be leading the western response, because it’s the European country that has probably got the most available military power to deal with the Houthis. But Britain can’t do this because it will always be the subordinate when US strategic interests are involved. Also, Britain doesn’t really have a military operation that is equipped for ongoing conflicts around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, not least because there are difficulties in getting its naval ships battle-ready. Britain needs to be a much stronger naval power if it wants to look after its own economic interests independently of the US. Events in the Red Sea do signal Britain’s long-term geopolitical weakness because it’s not equipped for what military power might need to be used for in the present world.

GJ: Can Europe assume that under a possible Trump presidency that the US will continue to act as the guardian of maritime trade?

HT: I’m not so convinced that the Americans, with exception of the western Pacific, do act as the guardians of maritime trade. They have been ineffective at keeping the Red Sea open at times of crisis. Going back to the 1970s, they allowed the Suez Canal to be closed between 1967 and 1975. They have been reluctant to use their naval power in the Persian Gulf. It’s taken years for them to act against the Houthis. Trump’s order to assassinate the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020 was the ultimate response to the Houthis attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, but that didn’t do anything to stop the Houthis from carrying on the way they have been. I don’t think any American administration, whether it’s headed by Biden, Trump or anyone else, is going to have freedom of the seas in the Middle East as the highest priority for using its military power, not least because if you deploy the US navy away from the Pacific that would be at the expense of what goes on in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

GJ: In the 1970s, the Yom Kippur War heralded a decade of global energy crises. How could Hamas’s attack on 7 October and Israel’s response reshape the global energy map?

HT: If you make that comparison then you can see that there’s been much less response from the oil producing Arab states to what’s going on in Israel than was the case in 1973. So, the immediate impact on energy is comparatively non-existent. Israel is in far less a difficult position than it was in 1973 because Iran is no longer its primary supplier of oil – more than half now comes from Azerbaijan. There’s also been a general geopolitical reversal: back in 1973, it was Arab states wanting Iran to stop selling oil to Israel and participate in the blockade of Israel and now its Iran calling for the Arab states to join its actions against Israel. And the Arab states aren’t interested – their domestic populations may be very pro-Palestinian, but if you look at what they’ve done since 7 October, where energy is concerned, they’ve put no pressure on Israel. This is partly because countries such as Egypt and Jordan import gas from there.

But if you put the 1973 crisis within a bigger geopolitical story – the end of European empire in the Middle East, the rise of energy nationalism, the Cold War – then you can see how the events we are witnessing today, especially with the emergence of a Russia-China-Iran axis, could be as disruptive as that moment was to global politics. Whatever happens, the US and its western allies will be forced to make choices they don’t really want to make.

[See also: Who is winning the war in Ukraine?]

GJ: In what ways could the present conflagration across the region escalate? What are the different scenarios you envisage that could play out over the coming weeks and months?

HT: At the centre of all these ongoing detonations around the Middle East is a single question: what is Iran trying to do right now? If you include its various proxies such as the Houthis and Hezbollah, then Tehran has fronts ranging in all directions – eastwards towards Pakistan, down to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and across to the Mediterranean. And we still don’t really know the answer to the question of how much Tehran was involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October? It’s hard to say, but from afar it does look like that attack was part of a strategic set of moves by Iran, including Iranian attacks on American bases in Syria and Iraq. It’s possible that Iran is acting like it is because it believes that it is being put onto the back foot by certain developments such as the prospect of Saudi-Israel normalisation of relations under American sponsorship, and the development of an economic corridor from India to the Mediterranean that would bypass Iran. The more we can understand the strategic logic behind Iranian actions the better chance we’ll have of understanding which of the various battles and flashpoints across the region is the most dangerous and the greatest potential site of escalation.

GJ: Has the west lost the art of grand strategy?

HT: I don’t think there’s anyone in the Biden administration who looks like equivalent of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski but I’m always sceptical about the idea that people at the centre of power in Washington or European countries don’t really have any sense of what they’re doing and what interests are at stake. I think there’s more understanding of the strategic consequences of energy, for example, at the highest level of government than often looks to be the case. Just because energy geopolitics doesn’t feature at the surface of everyday politics doesn’t mean that it isn’t actually there. Even if people aren’t articulating clear strategic thinking, I don’t think that should be taken as evidence that there isn’t any going on.

But what we can say is that the Biden administration has got itself into a mess about Iran. It came into office with a specific idea which was to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, which officials thought would take care of oil issues, would help Europeans move away from Russian gas, and let the White House present itself as the climate administration, because energy policy had been solved via rapprochement with Iran. That entire plan collapsed within the first six months of Biden being in office. Biden had to go to Saudi Arabia and ask the regime there to get OPEC+ to produce more oil. That showed weakness and Biden failed. It removed the terrorist designation off the Houthis quite early on after coming into office, then last night, on 17 January, they put it back on again, suggesting confusion. And just a few weeks before 7 October, Antony Blinken said the Middle East was quieter than it had been in decades. This all suggests that their initial judgment about Iran was wrong and that they don’t have a clear idea about what to do about it.

GJ: David Cameron recently said that it is “hard to think of a time when there has been so much danger and insecurity and instability in the world”. Do you share that view? And what is it that most concerns you?

HT: Cameron is wrong. It’s a version of the End of History argument, which basically says, “oh it was all very nice in a globalised world and economic interdependence had lead to peace, and people like Cameron become PM, and then suddenly this nasty geopolitics reappears in 2016 to ruin everything”. But if you compare what’s going on now to what happened in the 1970s then it’s not plausible to say the world is clearly more dangerous now than it was then.

But I do think Iran is central to what worries me about the world right now. If you look at this as a story that goes back to the late 1970s and the rise of the Islamic regime in Tehran, there are a whole stream of disruptive consequences. This isn’t really a story about exporting the revolution. But there is a certain kind of territorial revisionism that Iran engages in  – it’s helped create a statelet for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, its Houthi allies have effectively divided Yemen, it’s got territorial issues with Bahrain, and so on. So the more I think about it, the more I think that the US has never got to grips with the Iran question, both in relation to reginal stability and Israel in particular. As these multiple battles escalate, the situation is becoming very, very dangerous.

[See also: The Democrats must forge a political centre based on class, not identity]

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