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Libya’s Perpetual Instability: Domestic Drivers and Foreign Involvement

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Violent clashes that took place in Libya during August made apparent the country’s chronic instability. With the internationally backed stabilization and unification process deadlocked, a multitude of armed militias are competing for influence throughout the country, making such violence inevitable. Meanwhile, due to their conflicting interests, the main foreign actors involved in the conflict have been unable to establish a unified approach toward Libya and pressure their local partners into making compromises.

On the night of 14 August, clashes broke out in the southern suburbs of Libya’s capital Tripoli between two influential rival militias, the 444 Brigade and the Al-Radaa, or Special Deterrence Force (SDF). The fighting was reportedly triggered by the detention of 444 Brigade commander Mahmud Hamza by the SDF as he tried to travel from the city’s Mitiga airport, which is controlled by the latter. The clashes raged until late 15 August when the social council of the southeastern suburb of Soug gel-Joumaa, assisted by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, brokered a ceasefire according to which Hamza would be released and handed over to a “neutral party”. Soon after the announcement, the fighting abated. In total, 55 people were killed and 146 were wounded, while 234 families had to be evacuated.

The violence was yet another manifestation of the instability and political dysfunction that has been plaguing Libya since the fall of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and its descent into civil war. The country remains divided between two rival administrations, the Dbeibah-led internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk, supported by Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) militia. After the United Nations (UN) brokered a ceasefire in October 2020 that put an end to the fighting, elections for forming a unified government that would lead the country back to stability were supposed to be held in December 2021, under a UN-backed process. But they were eventually canceled, as the various players were unable to agree on how they would be conducted or who would be eligible to run for office. Libya has since been locked in a stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other and impose its rule over the entire country, although the ceasefire has so far held.

In this situation, numerous militias that emerged during the uprising against Gaddafi’s regime exercise powerful influence throughout the country. In the west, those militias are affiliated with various parts of the GNU, while in the east, Haftar has centralized control over local militias and integrated them into the LAAF. Due to the lack of a unified state structure that enjoys a monopoly on violence, these militias operate largely autonomously, particularly those aligned with the GNU. They exert control over different parts of the country, provide security services that fulfill the void left by the lack of proper security agencies, and promote their own allies for positions within state institutions. They also compete for government funding through the country’s immense oil wealth, while also profiting from criminal activities that Libya has emerged as a hub for, such as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. Those militias and figures associated with them are among the main beneficiaries of the country’s current state, which enables them to amass political power and wealth.

Within this context, the recent clashes in Tripoli were probably more about competition between local militias than the country’s east-west split. The 444 and the SDF constitute two of the most powerful militias in Tripoli, both supporting the GNU. The former is affiliated with the defense ministry and controls the city’s southern suburbs, while the latter is more loosely linked with the interior ministry and controls east and central Tripoli, the Mitiga air base and civilian airport, and a prison. Competition between them has intensified, as the 444 has grown more militarily structured and organized, also including elements of the former Gaddafi regime, and its popularity has grown due to a reputation for discipline and effectively dealing with crime, while the ultra-conservative religious SDF has been losing influence. Control over the Mitiga airport, where Hamza was initially detained, was a central focus of the fighting, as both groups seek to bolster their influence in the capital by seizing control of strategic assets. Instability and lack of state control lead to frequent re-occurring of such violence, as different militias seek to consolidate and expand their influence in areas where they operate.

The involvement of multiple foreign actors, pursuing competing strategic and economic interests, in Libya’s affairs has contributed to this instability. Until the 2020 ceasefire, the Tripoli-based western factions were supported mainly by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, while the main backers of HoR and Haftar were Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia. When Haftar launched an offensive during 2019-2020 to seize Tripoli, assisted by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Turkey directly intervened by deploying military forces that pushed his forces back and froze the frontlines, leading to the current stalemate. Ankara’s move, supported by Doha, was part of its policy of countering its then regional adversaries UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, as well as strengthening its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, while Moscow has also been seeking to gain a foothold in the region in the context of its confrontation with the US and NATO.

Conciliatory shifts in this web of alignments and rivalries, of which Libya became a battleground, have been taking place since 2021. Turkey and Qatar have patched up their relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Ankara has also made great progress in repairing its strained ties with Egypt. These developments have raised hopes that the rapprochement between some of the main foreign players will also trigger positive momentum in negotiations between the factions they support in Libya. Still, it seems that despite their involvement in Libya’s conflicts, these countries’ capability to pressure their local partners into compromises is limited. The latter have their own domestic bases of support, bolstered by oil revenues, and can hedge by seeking support from a wide array of foreign actors interested in Libya.

Meanwhile, Wagner mercenaries, aligned with Haftar, remain entrenched in several military bases and oil installations in east, central, and southern Libya. Concerned by Moscow’s foothold in a major oil-producing country with a strategic location in NATO’s southern flank, the US has intensified its efforts to dislodge Russia’s forces from Libya since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. But Washington so far has lacked the leverage and willingness to get more deeply involved in Libya, instead opting to rely on the powerful Turkish military presence in the west to contain Russian influence. The European Union (EU) has also shown increased interest in Libya’s oil and gas reserves since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. However, foreign policy disagreements between member states, as well as the complexities created by Turkish and Russian presence in the country, obstruct a coherent EU approach to the country.

In conclusion, Libya’s continued lack of a unified government and state control has solidified the strength and influence of militias, making competition between them a “natural” part of the country’s politics. As the militias compete for access to strategic assets and resources, violent clashes such as those that took place in Tripoli will almost certainly reoccur. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in the UN-backed process to unify and stabilize Libya is unlikely since the elites, particularly the militias, benefit from the current deadlock. Foreign actors are unlikely to be able to pressure their local partners into making compromises, considering the autonomy and agency of the latter as well as the conflicting regional and international interests in the country.

Guatemala: Between Political Instability and Hope

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The 2023 presidential elections in Guatemala took place in a climate of mistrust of the elites due to numerous irregularities and several convincing cases of corruption, prompting voters to turn to a left-wing candidate with a progressive, anti-corruption programme: Bernardo Arévalo. Nevertheless, this victory did not instantly put an end to the corruption of the elites and certain state bodies, and the new president, who is due to take office on 14 January 2024, will undoubtedly face internal pressure and attempts to neutralise him. It is highly likely that Arévalo will have serious problems governing properly. His less security-conscious agenda than that of his opponent Sandra Torres also makes it unlikely that a strict state of emergency, such as that in Nicaragua, will be introduced during his term of office.

On 20 August, voters in Central America’s largest country went to the polls to elect the successor to Alejandro Giammattei, of the conservative Vamos party, who has been in power since 14 January 2020. Giammattei won the run-off election against Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party with 57.96% of the vote on 11 August 2019. The 2023 elections were no better for the former First Lady, as she lost to Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Semilla party. Many predicted her victory, especially as the most popular candidate, Carlos Pineda, a member of Citizen Prosperity, who was expected to win 23% of the vote in the first round – compared with 20% for Sandra Torres – was disqualified on 26 May by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that he had not complied with electoral laws. Arévalo was given just 3% of the vote in the first round, but gradually gained votes by campaigning against corruption and for the underprivileged, reaching 12% in the first round.

The elimination of Carlos Pineda, along with others, was just one of the cases that led observers to believe that there had been irregularities in the presidential campaign, and they feared for the proper democratic conduct of the country’s most important elections. According to the World Bank (WB), Guatemala’s poverty and inequality rates are among the highest in the Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC), driven by the existence of a large and underserved population, mostly rural and Indigenous and employed in the informal sector. Fifty-four percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. These two factors probably played in favour of left-wing candidate Semilla, against a backdrop of voter fatigue and disillusionment with their elites. Arévalo was finally elected on 20 August 2023 with 58% of the vote to his opponent’s 37%. He will officially take office in January 2024.

Despite this victory, international observers feared that the results would not be respected by Guatemala’s legal institutions, primarily the US, the EU, the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) and the Organisation of American States (OAS). They called on Giammattei’s government to ensure that the results were respected, and that security measures were taken for Arévalo and his deputy Karin Herrera, believing that they were both at credible risk to their lives following death threats. Five days after the second round and the victory of the left-wing candidate, the government confirmed the implementation of specific security measures to avoid any incidents.

On 26 August, Torres decided to contest the election results, arguing that inconsistencies, data variations and a number of contradictions in the vote counts had been found. These statements fuelled further suspicion among some voters in an already turbulent election, which risked further damaging the credibility of the transition. Nevertheless, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal decided to disregard these concerns and definitively validated the results on 29 August. Unfortunately, the judicial authorities also decided to suspend the legal personality of the Semilla party, to which Arévalo and 23 other deputies belong. The left-wing party was accused of having committed alleged irregularities in collecting signatures for its formation, rendering its status illegal. This decision is a source of concern for observers and uncertainty about the country’s governance. It is certain that the next president will have to deal with hostile institutions and corruption among the elites. In other words, the social and economic problems will be compounded by problems of power to implement the policies for which he was elected.

The latest elections have highlighted the state of corruption in the country’s highest authorities, and it is certain that Bernardo Arévalo will have difficulty governing from January 2024. Against this tense and unstable backdrop, it is difficult to say with any certainty how power will be exercised, but it does augur well for improvements in people’s living conditions if the measures promised are implemented. Arévalo has also said that he is open to working with Mexico City and Washington to curb illegal migration to the US, and that structural social, economic and anti-corruption measures could help in this regard. It should be added that during the campaign, in an attempt to win over right-wing voters, Torres promised to implement stricter measures to combat crime, along the lines of those already in place in Nicaragua. The left-wing candidate was more sceptical. Barring a catastrophe, the spectre of a repressive state of emergency is receding and it is likely that the next government will adopt measures that are more social than security oriented.

Intra-Palestinian Clashes in Lebanon: Causes and Regional Implications

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Violent clashes broke out in the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon from late July until early August between Fatah and hardline Islamist factions. Although rooted in local struggles for control of the camp, the events could further weaken Fatah to the benefit of Iran, Hezbollah, and their Palestinian allies. In the context of Lebanon’s deteriorating political, economic, and security environment, this situation risks triggering major regional instability.

The violence at Ain el-Hilweh, near the southern city of Sidon, began on 29 July, when a Fatah member attacked Mahmoud Khalil, a militant of the al-Shabab al-Muslim faction, allegedly to avenge the murder of his brother by Islamists last March. Although Khalil survived, three of his companions were killed. In retaliation, Fatah commander Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, who heads the Palestinian National Security Forces in the camp, and four of his aides were murdered the following day. The situation escalated, with militants engaging in gunbattles throughout the camp using heavy weapons such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The main Islamist groups involved in the fighting against Fatah were al-Shabab and Jund al-Sham. Although a ceasefire was agreed on Monday, mediated with support from pro-Iranian Hezbollah, the clashes continued until the night of 2 August. Overall, at least 13 people were killed most of them militants, and 20,000 were displaced.

Ain el-Hilweh is the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, among 12 in total, and hosts around 55,000 people. Fatah, the largest Palestinian group that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA), is the most powerful faction in the camp, but other rival groups, such as Hamad and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), also have a presence. Fatah’s dominance over Ain el-Hilweh has been challenged by the more hardline Islamist factions and other criminal elements that have acquired influence in the camp for more than a decade, resulting in multiple instances of fighting like the most recent clashes. Previous rounds of fighting took place in 2015 and 2017. The official Lebanese army did not intervene, as it is prohibited from entering Palestinian refugee camps according to the 1969 Cairo Agreement, although caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in a phone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from Fatah), warned that it may do so if the clashes continued.

Considering the above, what caused the most recent clashes, and what might the implications be for Palestinian politics and regional stability in general?

Regional observers have noted that the various groups in the camp are often motivated by purely local sentiments, seeking to wrest control of the camp’s neighborhoods, while Fatah strives to maintain its control over Ain el-Hilweh. Preserving its sway over the nearly 210,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is key to the group’s status and influence and Ain el-Hilweh, being the biggest refugee camp and strategically located in south Lebanon near the Israeli border, is of significant importance. But the group has not been able to impose a political monopoly on the camp’s population due to the presence of multiple rivals. Apart from violence in the camp itself, the hardline Islamist factions have also been involved in other terrorist attacks in Lebanon and have sent fighters to Syria. The Syrian conflict has also caused an influx of Palestinian refugees who settled in the camp, causing further friction. Tensions in Ain el-Hilweh are thus high, and although it is difficult to find out the exact timeline leading up to the most recent outbreak of violence, it is obvious that it could easily be triggered by a cycle of revenge attacks like those described above. According to some analysts, after the latest round of fighting Islamist factions have put large segments of the camp under their control.

But the timing of the clashes could suggest that there might be broader implications. They broke out while a meeting was taking place in Egypt between Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh aiming to reconcile the two major Palestinian factions, which have been locked in conflict since 2007. The Iran-backed PIJ did not participate, and questions have been raised about its possible involvement in triggering the fighting. The group would have a clear interest in sabotaging the talks and weakening Fatah’s control over Ain el-Hilweh and other Palestinian camps in Lebanon. This would enable the group and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah, to expand the front against Israel and “link” Lebanon’s camps with the militants fighting against Israeli forces in the West Bank, which has been witnessing record levels of Israeli-Palestinian violence this year. With Fatah’s popularity in its West Bank stronghold rapidly declining due to mismanagement, corruption, and deteriorating security conditions, its weakening in Lebanon would further bolster the influence of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” against Israel. Interestingly, a week before the clashes, PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj visited Lebanon, where he reportedly urged political authorities to contain Hamas and other Islamist groups and pressure Hezbollah to cease aiding militants in the West Bank. This event demonstrates Fatah’s concerns over its position in Lebanon being undermined by Iran and its local allies.

On its part, Hamas did not get involved in the clashes, but it tried to exploit them to strengthen its own influence vis-à-vis Fatah. Haniyeh tried to assume a mediating role, urging Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri (a Hezbollah ally) to intervene for an end to the hostilities. By exploiting its partnership with fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah to establish a direct link with both Lebanese state institutions and Palestinian factions in the country, Hamas is likely seeking to further marginalize Fatah. Despite the disputes between PIJ, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Fatah’s decline serves the interests of all those groups and their Iranian patron and it serves their goal of establishing a powerful presence around Israel’s borders. Jihad Tahe, Hamas’ spokesman in Lebanon, pointedly declared that the group would work together with other “invested parties” to maintain security at Palestinian refugee camps and keep them “a bone in the throat of the United States and Israel”.

More generally, the clashes were another indication of Lebanon’s deteriorating political and security environment. The country has been mired in a dire economic crisis since 2019, with the local currency losing more than 98% of its value against the US dollar and citizens unable to afford food and fuel or access their bank deposits. Palestinian refugees, who face widespread discrimination in the country and are legally banned from a wide range of professions, are even more severely affected by poverty and hopelessness. Lebanese politics have also been locked in a stalemate, as political parties have been unable to agree on a new president since October 2022 and have been unwilling to undertake the major reforms needed to lift the country out of its predicament. The Lebanese army has also been almost paralyzed by the crisis, with soldiers reportedly being barely able to get by with their salaries. In these conditions, Hezbollah, Palestinian factions, and other armed groups continue to operate with impunity and resist calls to disarm, raising concerns about even more intense violence and a potential Israeli military reaction if Lebanon’s institutions continue to falter.

In conclusion, the clashes at Ain el-Hilweh are both another flare-up of a long-running struggle between local actors for control of the camp and part of broader regional geopolitics. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their Palestinian allies are likely seeking to capitalize on Fatah’s declining influence in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The expansion of the pro-Iranian “Axis of Resistance” in Lebanon would pose a major threat to Israel’s security. The gradual collapse of the country’s state institutions could further bolster extremist armed groups and thus risk triggering a major regional crisis.

US Gun Violence

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How the July 4 2023 shootings exemplify why national holidays and public celebrations are a prime target for mass shootings and how global warming is adding to this problem.

Gun violence and mass shootings have been commonplace across the United States throughout 2023. Public holidays such as New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving are considered the most dangerous days for these shootings. The most dangerous of these holidays for mass shootings is the Fourth of July celebrations. This year there were sixteen mass shootings that occurred over the 30 June-5 July period resulting in twenty people killed and one hundred and twenty-six injured. These shootings have demonstrated further why public holidays are extremely dangerous in America and have become more common in recent years. These shootings present both a danger to the public and put a strain on the police force. Common celebrations such as birthday and house parties have also shown to be prime targets for gun violence in the US. On 23 April 2023, a shooting at an after-prom party resulted in eleven teenagers injured. This was the second shooting to occur that month with a mass shooting a week prior at a sweet sixteen party resulting in four dead and twenty-eight injured. Mass shootings at schools, shopping malls and churches have also occurred across America, though they are less common than shootings during celebrations, suggesting the need for an increased focus on security and monitoring the relationship between celebrations and gun violence. The increase in mass shootings in America over the last twenty years suggest that there may be some correlation between global warming and an increase in shootings.

The sixteen shootings from the 30 June-5 July were the largest amount of mass shootings that occurred within a one-week period so far in 2023. James Alan Fox, a criminologist in Northeastern University, using data from the Gun Violence Archive, found that there had been fifty-two shootings during Fourth of July celebrations over the last decade. This averages at just over five a year. Making the shootings during this year’s Fourth of July celebrations the worst in the last decade. Researchers and analysts, such as Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, have attributed the increase in violence to large groupings in open spaces as well higher temperatures. It is likely that part of the reason this year’s violence was at such a high level was due to the increase in temperatures caused by the current wildfires occurring in Canada and the increase in global temperature. The trend of shootings occurring during public holidays appears to extend towards common celebrations such as birthday parties or prom/after-prom events. Two shootings occurred within one week of each other in April resulting in four dead and thirty-nine injured. Whilst there are no specific statistics available that indicate a connection between shootings and common celebratory events, the number of shootings occurring during these events in comparison to mass shootings occurring at schools, shopping malls, and churches are comparatively less common. Therefore, the common occurrence of such instances as well as the significant number of shootings that occur during public holidays indicate a need for research between mass shootings and small-scale parties.

The gradual increase in global temperature over the last decade, as well as more recently the Canadian wildfires which have further increased the temperature, can also be attributed as a cause for the Fourth of July mass shootings and the increase in shootings over this year. Data from the FBI shows that the number of mass shootings has increased from three incidents in 2000 to sixty-one incidents in 2021. Similarly, the global surface temperature for the U.S. has been increasing over the last twenty years, albeit with slight fluctuations. Nine of the top ten warmest years on record for forty-eight states have occurred since 1998, with 2012-2021 being the warmest decade on record world-wide since recordings began. Side-by-side these statistics show a correlation between an average increase in shootings alongside an increase in temperature. Whilst there are other attributing human factors that affect the occurrence of mass shootings, we are likely to see an increase in mass shootings as global warming continues to be an issue and temperatures rise.

Overall, the Fourth of July shootings demonstrate that celebratory events are prime targets for mass shootings, therefore increased surveillance and security need to be implemented during these events to counter this. The increase in temperatures caused by global warming, and subsequent disasters due to it such as the Canadian wildfires, will increase the likelihood of these shootings, causing more to happen during these events.

Tensions in the Gulf between US and Iran on the Rise

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Tensions in the Gulf between the US and Iran have been increasing since April, due to a series of ship seizures by Iran that have led to more US military deployments in the region. Iran likely seeks to deter the US and its allies from obstructing its oil exports, exert pressure on and get concessions from Washington, and drive a wedge between it and its regional partners. The US has an interest in deterring further Iranian aggression and demonstrating that it is still a reliable security provider in the Gulf. Nevertheless, a direct conflict appears unlikely.

The latest row in the Gulf began in late April when Iran’s forces seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker, asserting that it had collided with an Iranian boat. Then a few days later, in early May, another Panama-flagged tanker was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) due to a “judicial order” as reported by Iranian media. Tensions continued into early July, with US Navy ships preventing the Iranians from seizing two oil tankers off Oman’s coast. According to the Navy’s statement, Iranian forces had opened fire against the second vessel, without causing serious damage or loss of life. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, on 13 August US and European maritime forces in the Gulf advised vessels transiting the area to stay as far away from Iranian territorial waters as possible and warned of new potential attacks against commercial shipping.

The ratcheting tensions have led to the bolstering of both US and Iranian forces in the Gulf. In May, the Pentagon announced that US forces would increase patrols near the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial waterway through which around 20% of the global crude oil supply passes. But after the July incident, Washington opted for a stronger response. Throughout July and by early August, the US sent additional F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, additional warships, and more than 3,000 military personnel to the region. Furthermore, the Biden administration has floated the idea of deploying armed Marines on commercial ships to deter Iranian seizure attempts. The plan, if it is finally approved, would constitute an extraordinary US commitment to regional security. In turn, Iran has responded with its own military measures. The IRGC launched drills on three islands disputed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and it also announced that its naval forces would be equipped with additional drones and new cruise and ballistic missiles.

Why are Tehran and Washington doubling down on their posture in the region? Judging from both sides’ actions and statements, as well as the overall context of the current escalation, both sides have an interest in demonstrating assertiveness, although they are still unwilling to step into a direct conflict.

From Iran’s viewpoint, it seems that its moves were primarily a response to recent US measures against it. Reports said that days before the seizure in April, the US Justice Department had seized a tanker carrying Iranian crude oil destined for China, as Washington seeks to tighten enforcement of sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government probably seeks to convey the message that it will move aggressively to defend its interests against Western attempts to stifle its economy. This is made all the more important by Iran’s dire economic situation due to successive US sanctions, as well as the 2022 mass protests that challenged the regime’s hold on power. Keeping its oil exports running at all costs is crucial for the country’s economy to stay afloat.

It must be noted that Iran has a history of seizing foreign ships as leverage. According to US officials, Iran has seized or attacked 15 ships in the last two years and this approach has had some impact so far. For example, in 2022, two Greek tankers were seized after the US confiscated a cargo of Iranian oil near Greece. They were released after the Greek supreme court ordered that the cargo be returned to Iran. Iran’s tactics have thus achieved some success in protecting its interests and it is expected that the Islamic Republic will continue employing them, in the absence of other means of leverage.

Another Iranian goal is likely to exert more pressure on Washington as the two countries seek a new diplomatic arrangement after the collapse of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) over Iran’s nuclear program last year. Multiple sources have said that the Biden administration has been working on an interim informal deal, under which the US would refrain from tightening or imposing new sanctions against Iran in return for a halt to Tehran’s uranium enrichment and attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq, among other mutual concessions. Iran most likely understands that the US government is loath to get involved in a new conflict in the Middle East amid its preoccupation with deterring Russia and China. Its aggressive moves in the Gulf further increase pressure on the White House to negotiate and provide more concessions to Tehran. As evidenced by last week’s agreement for the release of five US citizens detained in Iran in return for Tehran’s access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue held in South Korea, both sides prefer to avoid conflict and try to reach a negotiated settlement, despite their assertive military posture.

Washington’s Gulf Arab allies are probably also a target of Iran’s pressure tactics. Despite their longstanding security ties to the US, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are increasingly concerned about Washington’s willingness to defend them against Iranian threats amid the latter’s pivot to Asia and its focus on the Ukraine war. By demonstrating its capability to impede maritime access to the Gulf, which is vital for the regional states’ capability to export their oil to global markets, Tehran likely seeks to persuade them that the US is not a reliable security guarantor and that their interests would be best served by an accommodation with Iran. This approach may also have achieved some success. In May, the UAE announced its withdrawal from a US-led regional maritime security grouping, reportedly due to the failure to stop Iran’s seizure of the two tanker ships. Following on that, in early June, an Iranian official announced that Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Pakistan, and India would form a “naval alliance” to ensure regional stability and security. Although whether this will indeed happen is still unclear, it does show that the Arab Gulf states are keen to balance their relations with Iran and seek some kind of accommodation with Tehran.

As for the US, its decision to strengthen its military presence in the Gulf is probably meant both to more effectively deter Iran and address its regional partners’ concerns. Heightened Iranian aggression would very likely lead to more instability in the Gulf, further exacerbating the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Increased US forces in the region will likely constrain Iran’s potential for more escalation. Furthermore, after its failure to prevent the seizures in April and May, Washington likely seeks to demonstrate its commitment to regional security and preserve its influence with the Arab Gulf states while avoiding a direct conflict.  Reassuring Gulf Arab governments that it is still a reliable partner has probably been a high priority for the US due to China’s increasing influence in the region, as showcased by its successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March. Efforts to allay the Gulf states’ concerns are likely also linked to ongoing US mediation for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to reports, one of the Saudi government’s main demands in exchange for normalizing relations with Tel Aviv is a formal US security guarantee. The new troop deployments and plans to protect commercial ships might be part of the negotiations and diplomatic bargaining between Washington and Riyadh, aimed at enticing the Saudis to accept US and Israeli proposals.

In conclusion, both the US and Iran have an interest in pursuing an assertive posture in the Gulf. The two countries seek to deter and exert pressure on each other while demonstrating their military power and influence to other regional states. Still, a direct conflict seems unlikely, as it would be highly detrimental to both sides’ interests. The course of events will be determined by the ongoing nuclear talks between the US and Iran, as well as the negotiations between the US (and Israel) and the Arab Gulf states to shape the future of their relationships.