The past year might just go down as one of the most tumultuous that the Persian Gulf region has seen for more than a decade, marked by tensions that left the United States and Iran teetering on the brink of war. And relations between the two foes are likely to further deteriorate in the year ahead, experts said.
Soldiers of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division march out to their C-17 transport plane as they leave Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for the Middle East on Wednesday. (Photo: China Daily)
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump ordered 750 more US soldiers to the Middle East, charging Iran was "fully responsible" for an attack on the US embassy in Iraq the previous day. The assault and Trump's response represented a fresh escalation of tensions in the Gulf.
Days before, on Dec 29, the US military launched airstrikes on targets of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia group, in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of its fighters. Washington called it retaliation for the killing of a US civilian contractor in an attack on an Iraqi military base that it blamed on the group, which helped Baghdad turn the tables on the Islamic State terrorists.
The US strikes angered the Iraqi government, which called them an unjustified violation of its sovereignty. Enraged protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad.
Trump made clear where he believed the ultimate responsibility lay for the killing of the contractor, saying in a tweet: "Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will".
Iran denies any role in recent attacks on the US forces in Iraq.
Trump's order for the airstrikes on the militia targets sent a clear message that the killing of US citizens marked out his red line, officials and experts said.
What changed was the death of the civilian contractor, which "pushed the envelope", US State Department Assistant Secretary David Schenker said.
Since May, nearly 14,000 US military personnel have been deployed to the region to deter Iran. In mid-November, the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln sailed through the Strait of Hormuz－a passage vital for oil supplies－in a show of force against Iran.
Lu Jin, a Middle East researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned that as the confrontation between the US and Iran intensifies, the risk of a miscalculation is increasing.
"Despite Washington and Teheran being well aware of the costs and not wanting a potential war which doesn't serve the interests of either side, it is possible that any further miscalculation and misfiring between them could detonate a direct conflict," he said. "The danger of war lingers with the deployment of more and more US troops and military assets in the region amid the standoff."
Tensions in the Gulf have been rising since Trump in May 2018 withdrew the US from a 2015 nuclear accord that Teheran had signed with Washington and five other world powers. Trump said the deal was one-sided and gave Iran sanctions relief for rolling back, but not permanently dismantling, its nuclear program.
After pulling out of the agreement, Trump began a campaign of "maximum pressure", tightening the rope around Teheran's neck by reinstating sanctions to cripple Iran's economy. His aim is to force Iran to renegotiate a deal more favorable to the US. In response, Teheran has gradually reduced its commitment to the nuclear deal.
Tensions mounted after Washington blamed Teheran for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf from mid-May last year. Iran denied any involvement. In June, Trump canceled at the last minute an order to hit Iranian military targets in retaliation for Iran's shooting down of a US surveillance drone.
Iran has said formal negotiations or any kind of talks can take place only within the framework of the so-called P5+1, the grouping comprising the powers that agreed to the 2015 deal with Iran－the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
Ren Yuanzhe, an associate professor in the Department of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs Management at China Foreign Affairs University, said US policies are the root cause of the escalating tensions in the Middle East, citing Washington's maximum pressure on Teheran and its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
He said that, despite the US sanctions, the Iranian economy is not facing collapse in the short term because Iran is a regional power with the rare trait of having an independent industrial system. It also holds a few strategic cards, such as the ability to restart the nuclear process and to block the Strait of Hormuz.
As for 2020, the intensity of US sanctions, the pace of Iran's resumption of its nuclear activities and the extent to which some European nations are willing to act as mediators are all likely to affect the level of tensions around the Iranian nuclear issue. No one expects the dark clouds to go away soon, experts said.
Li Shaoxian, a Middle East studies expert at Ningxia University, said the US' maximum pressure campaign is not aimed at starting a war with Iran, as Washington is contracting its global military reach to serves its "America First" strategy.
"But Washington's demands (over the nuclear issue) are too harsh for Teheran. Negotiating means surrender, which is totally unacceptable for Iran," Li said. "As for the US military deployment in the Middle East, the US is not aiming to start a large-scale war with Iran, but instead to impose a complete blockade and force Iran to comply."
As the US is now bracing for the 2020 presidential election, he said, Trump is unlikely to launch a direct military strike against Iran in the near future, relying more on its maximum pressure tactics.
"As the two foes take turns in responses, and send regional tensions spiraling, it is unlikely that these will ease soon," Li said.