Monday, December 21, 2020

The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Security Dilemma

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The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Security Dilemma


Global Views 360

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December 21, 2020


American Assault Ship in the Persian Gulf | Source: Cpl. David Gonzalez via Flickr

This article explains the recent tensions between Iran and the United States, and presents it as a case of the ‘Security Dilemma’ theory in practice.

The Persian Gulf Crisis 2019-20

To understand the current crisis in Persian Gulf, we must look at the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was signed between The E3/EU+3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and the United States, China, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to permit nuclear capabilities for Iran exclusively for peaceful purposes, in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

JCPOA terms:

International Atomic Energy Agency representative in Tehran, Iran for talks on JCPOA implementation | Source: Tasnim News Agency

Under this accord, Iran had to reduce its Uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg, maintain its level of enrichment at 3.67%, reduce the number of centrifuges, and only keep one of its Uranium enrichment plants active. It also had to redesign its reactor at Arak, so it could not produce weapon’s grade Plutonium. Until 2031, Iran is not permitted to make heavy-water reactors.

Further, it was to permit itself to regular inspection of their nuclear site by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In return, Iran gained over $100bn of frozen assets overseas, and was permitted to allow trading in oil in international markets and use the global financial system for trade.

Trump Administration’s Revoking of the JCPOA

In 2018, the Trump administration reimposed some of the sanctions in Iran, despite Trump's election promise to reduce involvement in the Middle East. Countering the re-impositions, Iran threatens to resume Uranium enrichment. In May 2019, Iran suspends nuclear deal commitments, and gives other signatories a 60-day deadline to protect it from US sanctions, before resuming Uranium enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had already increased Uranium production, but is unclear by how much.

President Trump signing executive orders, imposing sanctions on Iran | Source: Shealah Craighead via White House

In May 2019, the US increased military deployment in the Persian Gulf, reportedly to prevent what the termed was a “campaign” between Iran and its proxies to threaten US oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Tanker Crisis

In June 2019, two tankers were set ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, using mines. The US blamed Iran for these blasts, but Iran denied the charges.

In the same month, Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a US surveillance drone, escalating tensions and causing the US to name the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

In July 2019, the British Royal Marine Commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, as it was suspected to be en route to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. The US declared that anyone assisting the ship would be considered an accomplice of terrorist groups, namely the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

In retaliation, Iran seized British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian tanker was released six weeks later, on the condition that they do not unload their cargo of 2.1million barrels of oil in Syria.

December Air Strikes

In December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Iraq was attacked by an unconfirmed party, killing one American contractor. This base hosts Americans (amongst other nationalities) who are responsible for training Iraqi troops in counter-terrorism. The Americans alleged that the attack was carried out by Kataib Hezbollah, which denies it. Kataib Hezbollah is a rebel group (recognized as a terrorist group by the US) backed by Iran. The Iraqi’s alleged that ISIL was responsible.

In retaliation for the killing of the American Contractor, the US launched air strikes on the weapons depot and command centres of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in the same month, reportedly killing 25 militiamen.

Assassination of Iranian Major General

Late Iranian General, Qasem Suleimani | Source: Tasnim News Agency

Iraq and Iran condemned the attack, and on 31 December, 2019, Iraqi militia attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. In response, the US conducted airstrikes at the Baghdad International Airport in January 2020, killing the Commander of Iranian Quds Force, General Qasem Suleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran.

These escalations, placed within the context of US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a good example of the Security Dilemma theory and how it plays out in practice.

What is the Security Dilemma?

Before delving into the theoretical definitions it is worth reminding ourselves that States do not behave as they do because a theoretical model demands them to. Rather, most theoretical models are based on observations of real-world behaviour of states, and seek to explain said behaviour. The Classical Realist theory, of which the Security Dilemma is a part, is amongst one of these, and I endeavour to highlight some of the key points of this theory.

The Classical Realist theory holds that States (or State-actors) are the basic unit of any international system. They are the most important actors, as there is no authority higher than them. The international system is fundamentally anarchic, with every actor left to their own devices with no supranational oversight. Each State finds it in their own self-interest to provide their own means for security. Security comes with the ability of the State to exercise its power, and thus Power Hegemony and Security are inextricably linked. In other words, since no State can rely on a supranational authority to provide security (an every-man-for-himself scenario), it is in each State’s best interest to understand the power distribution across all state-actors and maximize power for themselves, as the ultimate security. This results in a zero-sum game, with one actor’s loss being another’s gain. In providing absolute security for one’s own State, one leaves others insecure. The resulting power imbalance manifests in conflict, and for the Realist it follows, therefore, that Conflict is the natural state of affairs.

This, in essence, is the Security Dilemma: Striving for absolute security leaves others absolutely insecure, thus providing powerful incentives for an arms race, leading to further conflicts. It is little wonder that this is also called the Spiral Model, for in the very process of striving for security, one gives birth to escalating conflict.

How does this relate to the Persian Gulf Crisis?

The US has long followed the Realist model, believing that in a state of fundamental anarchy, it is justifiable to have nuclear capabilities and have intense militarization, as a means of gaining absolute security (justified by ‘offense is the best defence’). However, the US is also known for disallowing Weapons of Mass Destruction and nuclear capabilities in other countries, despite having such resources by itself. Here we see the Security Dilemma: to maintain absolute security, the US cannot allow others to be similarly armed. This is seen clearly in the signing of the JCPOA.

Consider the case from Iran’s point of view. As a result of the US war against Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrow of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, there has been constant American presence in both the countries bordering Iran since almost two decades. That this poses a threat to Iran is obvious: the US caused fundamental regime changes in Iraq after the war; with its manpower and firepower, alongside its strategic placement on both sides of the Iranian border, the US is at a vantage point to attack Iran – placements that are, paradoxically, intended to guarantee American security.

The American show of strength and the impending danger of conflict leave Iran with two choices: Forge alliances with US adversaries, such as China or Russia, to deter Iran-US conflict, or be nuclear-armed. Iran managed both, causing, in effect, a nuclear arms race that culminated in the JCPOA.  In retrospect, the JCPOA seems like the perfect solution to the Security Dilemma in US-Iran conflicts: not only does it allow Iran to benefit from its suspensions of nuclear capabilities, it also ceases the arms race and de-escalates the conflict. In short, it is the Diplomat’s way out of the Security Dilemma, guaranteeing security without arms.

The Trump administration’s call to reimpose sanctions on Iran only serves to re-ignite security concerns for both countries. With Iran having ousted its JCPOA commitments as of January 2020, we can only hope that de-escalations will soon follow to prevent the otherwise inevitable spiralling into arms race and false absolute security.

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January 22, 2021 12:26 AM

Interviewing Dr. Kamil Zwolski: Professor of International Politics turned Edupreneur

Today we talk with Kamil Zwolski, PhD, who is Associate Professor in International Politics in the UK and who recently launched

Q: Kamil, what is the idea of MyGlobalPolitics?

Kamil: The idea is to explore how the Internet can open up new opportunities for learning International Relations and related topics, such as international security, geopolitics or the role of China. On the one hand, there are people who are interested in what’s going on in the world and would like to explore that topic in more depth. But on the other hand, they are not planning to study it at a university. There are also people who do study International Relations at a university and want some extra resources to do better and get better grades. The website also offers help to those who need help with their job applications, university applications, PhD proposals, policy papers and other projects on International Relations.    

Q: Is there a market for educational products in an academic niche?

Kamil: That’s what I am finding out. It is true that most people who want to sell educational products, such as online courses, go for one of the three big niches: making money, getting fit or dating/relationships. But I am an academic and an expert on International Relations. And that’s what I want to do. I also like the world of online education and entrepreneurship. In that sense, I am what is sometimes called an edupreneur.

Q: What do you do for your full time job?

Kamil: I am Associate Professor in International Relations at one of the leading UK universities. I am a published author with hundreds of citations on Google scholar, including two peer-reviewed books. I am also a passionate educator and a Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy. All it means I am serious about improving my teaching skills and making sure students learn stuff when they work with me.

Q: What are your hopes and plans for MyGlobalPolitics?

Kamil: I see the future of education as developing alongside two parallel routes. One route will be the familiar system of higher education institutions. Contrary to what some predict, I don’t think universities will go away in any foreseeable future. Over centuries, they have accumulated enough legitimacy to be seen as undisputed pillars of how people go about getting more advanced knowledge. Granted, universities - like all institutions - have to adapt and some will do that better than others. But as a category of institutions, they will continue to exist.

Then there is this other route, which we already see, but which is nowhere near its full potential. And that’s online education. We see some well-established players in that field, such as Udemy, but there is much scope for greater diversity within that category of services. The big players will stay there and may get even bigger, as more people choose online as a way to learn new stuff. But in addition to those large players, individual edupreneurs will be building their own little communities within their areas of specialism. And that’s where I see MyGlobalPolitics - a community of learners interested in International Relations, who want to get in-depth knowledge on the subject or who have some projects they want to work on. That’s my ambition for this platform.

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