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The President's Take

The Rising Risk of a U.S.-Iran War

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley reflects on South Sudan, Ethiopia, Venezuela and the rising risk of a war between the U.S. and Iran.

All eyes this month were on risks of escalation between the U.S. and Iran. And what a month it was, with the Trump administration’s announcement that it would not renew waivers on the import of Iranian oil, its claim that Iran was plotting against U.S. targets in the region and had attacked four oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates coast, the ordered departure of non-essential U.S. personnel from Baghdad, and the decision to bolster America’s military presence in the Middle East. Iran suspended some of its own nuclear restrictions and threatened to exit the nuclear deal altogether, while Yemen’s Huthis – viewed by Washington and its Gulf allies as Iranian proxies – conducted drone strikes on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Neither Washington nor Tehran appears eager for a military confrontation and, at this writing, there are welcome signs of efforts to de-escalate, with numerous third countries passing messages between the two protagonists. But as Crisis Group warned over a year ago, a U.S. maximum pressure campaign that, to Tehran, is tantamount to outright economic warfare, was bound to provoke a reaction, and that reaction in turn was likely to prompt a response. That is a recipe for miscalculation. A war President Trump almost certainly doesn’t want could be set in motion by a policy his administration seems intent on pursuing.

My eyes, meanwhile, also were on other crises. I travelled to several countries balancing precariously between hopes of peace and the threat of war. South Sudan’s warring parties agreed to a six-month extension of the deadline to form a transitional government. That they had to postpone the timetable is an index of how little progress they have made and of the two protagonists’ – President Salva Kiir’s and former vice president Riek Machar’s – unwillingness to compromise. But that they managed to agree on anything at all and, crucially, prolong the ceasefire, is cause for relief. To make sure the country doesn’t slide back into violence, the next six months will need to be very different from the last eight. Outsiders, especially the African Union, U.S. and EU, should press Kiir and Machar to implement their agreement or face consequences. With the deal’s guarantor, former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, now behind bars, the onus will fall on them to keep the process moving forward.

Next door, in Ethiopia, more bouts of deadly inter-ethnic fighting deepened concerns about the country’s trajectory. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken bold steps to make peace with neighbours and open up the country’s domestic system. But he is confronting a rising tide of ethnic nationalism, exacerbated by political actors intent on gaining influence and power during this time of transition. Rulers in Oromia and Amhara regions face ethno-nationalist challenges; Tigrayan nationalism is resurgent; in the north west, attacks against ethnic Gumuz, themselves apparently in retaliation for attacks on ethnic Amhara, reportedly left over 200 dead. Competing elites will quickly need to forge a consensus on how to reform the federal system to ensure Abiy’s historic initiatives can succeed.

Finally, in Venezuela, the curious uprising on 30 April was followed by a government crackdown on the opposition. Authorities detained the deputy president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, while the pro-government National Constituent Assembly revoked parliamentary immunity for fourteen opposition MPs. Yet, in a sign that both parties may be open to dialogue, confidential talks took place between government and opposition representatives in Oslo mid-month and then again at the end of May. A settlement will require flexibility from the two parties, but also from their external allies – most notably the U.S. The problem is that powerful elements on both sides continue to believe that time is on their side. As the collapsing economic and humanitarian situation I witnessed in Caracas last week made clear, however, time is not on the side of the Venezuelan people.

Today marks day 176 of Michael Kovrig’s arbitrary detention. One hundred and seventy-six days during which Michael has exhibited remarkable courage and resilience, and during which we, along with so many others, have continued to fight for his release.