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Rouhani Dismisses US-Led Gulf Coalition, Argues For An Unlikely Regional ‘Dialogue’

Iran - President Hassan Rouhani (R) and VP Es'haq Jahangiri in government cabinet meeting. August 14, 2019
Iran - President Hassan Rouhani (R) and VP Es'haq Jahangiri in government cabinet meeting. August 14, 2019

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has dismissed the U.S. plan to form a military coalition in the Persian Gulf to protect navigation as "superficial and impractical," and has characterized reports about Israel's presence in the coalition as "absurd."

Speaking during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday August 14, Rouhani said, "There is no need for foreign forces to restore security and stability in the Persian Gulf."

The decision to form an international military coalition to protect navigation in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman was made after Iranian forces downed a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf waters, detained oil tankers including a British-flagged vessel, and allegedly attacked at least four oil tankers in the Sea of Oman during the past three months.

Further destabilizing actions by Iran included interference with GPS system of ships in the region to lure them into Iranian territorial waters so that Iran's revolutionary Guards (IRGC) could detain them for violating international rules.

During the past weeks, while commentators close to IRGC, including Kayhan newspaper's Sadolah Zareie claimed that Iran's measures have strengthened regional security and Iran's position in the region, other commentators in Iran have said that Iran's provocative actions have not served Tehran's interests.

A prominent regional analyst wrote last week in Iran Diplomacy website, a media outlet close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are "very pleased by the U.S. and UK-led global coalition being formed to protect the security of oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz."

He added: "Developments in the Persian Gulf during the past two months, have had consequences contrary to what we see in the official propaganda in Iran."

Meanwhile, a report in Etemad newspaper on Tuesday by Sara Masoumi, who usually supports the Iranian Foreign Ministry's positions, observed that "apparently foreign hands, supported by some regional players have tried during recent months to question security and stability in the Strait of Hormuz to justify further presence by players from outside the region."

However, Masoumi’s article surprisingly mentions the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran among actions, which have strengthened the arguments of those who say there is insecurity in the Persian Gulf

According to Etemad, these developments made Japan. Russia, China and some European states express concern as they still remembered the tanker war of the 1980s. In the meantime, "While the United States has already managed to attract the support of Israel and the United Kingdom to take part in this coalition”, Iran has been trying to argue against the presence of foreign navies.

In his Wednesday remarks Rouhani in a veiled reference to its Gulf Arab neighbors stressed that "regional countries can protect security through dialogue among themselves as America's claims and actions will not bear any fruit for them."

He said even if the coalition formed by the U.S. materializes, it still cannot help protect the region's security.

But after years of animosity and tensions with its Gulf neighbors, Iran would have a tough time to convince them to turn away from a Western coalition.

Zarif visited Doha earlier this week in a bid to convince regional countries that they do not need a foreign force to protect them. But it is unlikely he would be able to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to convey the same message. It would be naïve on the part of these two countries to rely on an alliance with a neighbour they believe has made shipping in the region insecure.

Pronouncements by Rouhani and Zarif have become more diplomatic regarding foreign naval presence in the strategic waterways, and they have made overtures toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to forge a regional arrangement for security. But what they say is markedly different from the threatening language the IRGC uses.

As long as Iran does not speak in one voice, it would be hard to rely on promises by Rouhani and Zarif. And the experience of the past months have shown that even when Iranians try to unify their voice, it is Rouhani and Zarif who have to toughen their positions, at times becoming identical with those of hardliners.

Meanwhile, although Rouhani has described Israel's possible presence in the coalition as "absurd," and although Israel's contribution to the coalition is said to be providing intelligence rather than a military presence, still the developments is a serious challenge for Tehran.

So far, Iranian forces have been operating within a dozen kilometres of the Israeli border in Syria, but now Israel is going to be present in Iran's troubled waters as a result of a series of bellicose moves by Iran, which seem to have been an invitation for Jerusalem to get involved.