Crisis in the Middle East and the benefits of doing nothing
As the war drums beat and as chaos seemingly rages all around us in the Middle East, surprising wisdom can be found in the words of novelist A. A. Milne, the creator of the peerless Winnie the Pooh stories. As Milne sagely counsels, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing.”
“What?” you say, arising from your newspaper in righteous indignation, but hear me out. Following the Iranian-inspired drone attack on the main Saudi refinery at Abqaiq, which temporarily took 5 million barrels of oil — half the daily Saudi total — off the energy market, surely immediate retaliation is called for? Well, no.
A basis for the realist foreign policy school of thought is to think like your enemies, to consider what their primary interests are, and to deny them success in their own terms. To do so, one must be part geopolitical analyst and part psychologist, and be able to uncannily set aside one’s own desires and views and truly think like those who are sworn to defeat you.
Summoning the inner wisdom of this last point is a tall order at the best of times, and becomes nearly impossible when confronted by a crisis, in which feeling — rather than thinking — tends to hold sway. But that is the difficult but absolutely essential quality necessary if one’s enemies are to be bested.
Since at least May, Iran has played an increasingly disruptive role in the region. Tehran has seized multiple foreign-flagged tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Gulf. It has very publicly increased its uranium enrichment program to 4.5 percent, beyond the agreed limits of the nuclear deal it struck with the West, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It also surpassed the 300-kilogram limit for stocks of stored low-enriched uranium agreed to under the JCPOA.
It has shot down a high-tech US drone. And now, ratcheting up things several notches, it has, through the drone attack, struck at the very heart of the Saudi energy industry.
The obvious and overriding question must be: Why? Let us begin with the broadest answer; the revolutionary leadership in Iran is deeply worried about the present regional status quo. Specifically, it is unhappy that the Trump administration — returning to traditional American policy in the region — has chosen to confront Iran’s adventurism, rather buying it off, as the Obama administration attempted to do through the JCPOA.
The White House’s policy of “maximum pressure” has been an unambiguous success in grinding the Iranian economy into dust, thus greatly limiting its adventuristic goals in the region. Before the new US policy, Iran found itself on the march in the Middle East, with allies in Iraq (both the government and Shiite paramilitaries), Lebanon (Hezbollah), Yemen (the Hezbollah-trained Houthis), and Syria.
The White House’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ has been an unambiguous success in grinding the Iranian economy into dust.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
This all looked good from Tehran’s perspective while its strategic offensive could be economically supported. But what amounts to an advantage in times of economic plenty quickly becomes a massive liability in times of economic scarcity. In 2018, the year that Trump walked away from the JCPOA and imposed draconian new sanctions on Tehran, the economy cratered by 3.9 percent, with inflation deeply hurting the Iranian populace as it rose from 9 percent in 2017 to a stratospheric 31 percent in 2018.
Nor are there any signs this nosedive is about to be corrected. Such an economic calamity is a direct threat to the medium-term survival of the Iranian revolutionary elite. As such, its primary interest is to change the conditions of today that have put it at such a strategic disadvantage.
This is the geoeconomic context in which Iran’s aggressive and disruptive recent actions need to be seen. Overconfidently believing that it can ratchet up tensions just short of all-out war, Tehran hopes for one of two strategic outcomes, both of which are far more advantageous to it than the present dismal situation it finds itself in due to the US’ economic campaign.
From Tehran’s point of view, perhaps the Europeans can — intellectually armed with the dire prospects of all-out war — convince the mercurial Donald Trump to drop his highly effective sanctions in return for Iranian promises to “talk.” This outcome would result in both a major practical and psychological victory for the regime, proving to its long-suffering people that yet again it is worth supporting in its successful campaign against the US.
The second outcome — limited war predicated by tit-for-tat proportional American military strikes from the air — also works for the Iranian leadership. Limited war always unites countries in the short term, drawing attention away from the Iranian leadership’s economic ineptitude, corruption, and the success of American sanctions, all brought on as a direct result of the regime’s regional adventurism. Again, with the subject changed away from the economy, Iran’s leaders dodge threats to their survival.
As this is undoubtedly what is going on here, the response should be simple: Do nothing, change nothing and let the maximum pressure campaign continue to work to devastating effect. Knowing what Iran is up to means denying the regime what it wants; by doing nothing, the Saudi and American leaderships can stop Iran from escaping from the present trap it finds itself in.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.