Will the relations between the USA and the EU deteriorate due to the Iranian crisis?
The seizure of the Stena Bulk tanker by the Iranian maritime patrol from July 19, 2019, threatens relatively constructive relations between the EU and Iran. The British diplomacy condemned the action of Iran as an act of piracy and called for the immediate release of the vessel with its 23-member crew. Subsequently, London encouraged the other EU member states to establish a common European maritime patrol controlling the safety of crude oil transportation in the Persian Gulf. It is almost certain that Tehran would not be pleased by the potential presence of Europeans in its waters. This could lead to even more disputable state of relations and a potential loss of the last economic ally of Iran in the West.
The whole scenario from the Gulf was preceded by a similar situation in the Gibraltar strait from the beginning of July 2019. In that case, the Iranian oil vessel Grace 1, allegedly smuggling oil to Syria and thus breaching the European sanctions on Assad‘s regime, was seized and forced to abandon its route by the British Navy Forces. The Iranian leadership was outraged by the action of the UK and vowed to take retaliatory measures, what could have been observed just a couple of weeks later.
The disruption of the economic ties between the EU and Iran was caused primarily by the threat of the so-called secondary sanctions applied by the US. Washington, in order to discourage European companies from trading with Iran, threatened with denying access to the American markets, which could be fatal for the majority of producers in Europe. This tense security situation between the US and Iran follows the tariff war between the US and the EU from the previous year undermining mutual trust in the Transatlantic partnership. Besides Russia and China, it was the EU that has been trying to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive. At the end of the day, the withdrawal of the US from the deal led not only to the worsening of the EU-US relations but also to the diplomatic rapprochement of the EU and Russia.
Will Beijing use force to quell the Hong Kong protests?
The widespread protests in the Chinese semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong have continued for several months now, engulfing the region in the worst crisis since the handover to China in 1997. The opposition against a law revision that would allow extradition to Mainland China has transformed into a wider fight against the creeping curtailing of the region’s autonomy and rights. The local government’s decisions to merely stop the legislative process and not scrap the law altogether has only further infuriated the protesters. Their radical core has turned to more extreme tactics, with clashes between the demonstrators and the police, at times aided by Beijing-affiliated triads, becoming an everyday occurrence.
The most likely way forward is for protests to gradually die out due to loss of support and successful repression. Beijing is hoping for the Hong Kong public opinion to turn against the protest movement in the wake of its radicalization, using gangster attacks and other provocations to instigate more violence and chaos. Smaller concession will be made to diminish the protest base. Finally, police repression and mass arrests will be used to put down the radical core of the protesters. However, in the aftermath, reviving the stalled political reform process will be necessary for long term stability. Beijing’s apparent unwillingness to do so will make Hong Kong a perpetual trouble spot for China.
The most extreme option would be the interference of the PLA garrison to quell the protests. It would have legal support and has already been hinted to by Chinese officials. However, save for the far-fetched scenario of overthrowing of the Hong Kong government by protesters, China is very unlikely to use the “nuclear option”. It would mean the end of One Country Two Systems and the role of Hong Kong as a global financial center, and would be a huge hit to China’s global reputation.
The Turkish-Saudi rivarly has been escalating
Since the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and his disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia reached the tipping point.
According to the intelligence report by the Emirates Policy Center, Riyadh has decided to pursue the strategy of confrontation with Istanbul given its concerns about Turkey’s regional influence and President Erdogan’s claims for Islamic leadership projected through regional alliances between Turkey, Iran and Qatar.
Turkey’s support for Qatar and their tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is another point of disagreement between the two. The Brotherhood is seen as an existential threat to the Kingdom which in the 50s accepted many exiled MB members that fled the Nasserist crackdown in Egypt. Since then, MB was transformed into Al Sahwa movement, an influential religious force within the Kingdom. With the rise of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) who does not tolerate any challenge to his power, members of Al Sahwa together with the MB have been targeted and blacklisted as a terrorist threat to the country.
The new Saudi strategy is then nothing else but another step in the increasingly direct contest between the two powers. It is also a part of the MbS’s wider strategy of making Saudi Arabia the unchallenged regional leader.
Many analysts agree that MbS is the main reason behind the aggressive escalation, which prompted Turkish authorities to cultivate better ties with his father, King Abdulaziz bin Salman. An example of this sentiment was expressed through the open letter to the King sent by a presidential adviser Yasin Atkay which explains that the Khashoggi’s affair was not an attempt to challenge the Kingdom.
For now, the Turkish economy remains the main target. Saudi Arabia exercises substantial influence in terms of Saudi tourists and investment pouring into the country. The recent Saudi blockade of Turkish exports might signalize that the strategy is slowly materializing. Unless Turkey/Saudi Arabia experience a substantial shift in their leadership one should expect a further deepening of already existent regional divisions.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Matúš Jevčák.
Authors: Lukáš Dravecký, Filip Šebok, Barbara Kelemen
The text has not undergone language revision.