Summer 2019: all international eyes are on the street of Hormuz. The small waterway between Oman and Iran is since May the stage of rapid following incidents between the USA and Iran. Including incidents with the UK and Iran. While tensions between both countries are rising, further escalations might become a realistic scenario.
Can psychology explain anything about what is going on right now?
To answer that question, have a look at the main players on stage.
Since Donald Trump is the president of the USA, his slogan ‘America first’ is leading in his international policy. Trump’s foreign vision is taking advantage of everything for that will profit America. Negotiation is reduced to the minimum. Under the power of Trump, America will not accept anything less than the best for the country on short terms. The nationalist vision of America is the core of every talk and/or decision Trump does/make.
From the small steps to a multipolar world in the days of Obama, to a clear-cut unipolar world with the USA on top: that is how Trump will make America great again.
Since the exile of the Shah in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a strong national policy. A policy that accepts as little as possible interference of Western powers. The in 2013 elected president Rohani is strongly supervised by Ayatollah Khamenei and the clerks, no political decision is made without the approval of the religious part of the Iranian government. In this light, the nuclear deal was a milestone for the country, celebrated spontaneously in the streets of Tehran.
The disappointment among Iranians was understandable when Trump didn’t resign the agreement, even though Iran stayed to the deal. The political tensions started at that moment as Trump forced Iran to compromise to his demands, among others the international influence of Iran in the region. The Iranian regime tried to save the deal, while not giving Trump any finger, resulting in more restrictions.
Do you see what they have in common? They both want to reduce the influence of the other. They feel both intimidated by the other and they don’t want to be dominated by the other. They both see each other as hostile enemies and have both a nationalistic mindset.
What is currently happening in the street of Hormuz is what is called in psychology a ‘chicken-game’. The psychological explanation of a battle of power, many times used during the Cold War. Imagine a long, small road with two cars driving high-speed towards each other. Each driver has two options, 1: maintain the high speed, stay on the road and hope the other driver will swerve. Option 2: swerve for the other driver to prevent damage.
Both options have side effects. If both drivers stay in option 1 they end up crashing with damage and even death as a consequence. Choosing for option 2 has a loss of power as a consequence: you are the loser and the other gets all the good.
If you want to be the winner the best is to make your presentation as strong as possible; imitate the other driver so he will be ‘wise’ and choose option 2.
Actually, this is what is currently happening: Trump and the regime of Iran are both moving high speed towards each other, the street of Hormuz is their highway.
In an attempt to imitate the other -so he will swerve- they try to impress each other with accidents: by capturing boats –even of USA long-time ally the UK-, shooting at drones and extending naval equipment.
All the incidents that are rapidly following each other in the summer of 2019 in the street of Hormuz are attempts to imitate the other in a battle of power.
Unfortunately nothing –no human, no political policy- is predictable. And so is this battle.
The outcome of a possible collapse -when the regime of Iran and Trump will not resign- will be for both countries negative. Iran would be the underdog in a military war with the USA or international coalition. The chances of winning a military battle with the USA are small and will have a big impact on the position of the Ayatollah and the economy of Iran.
Going into war will also be risky for Trump. While Trump might be motivated to start a war with a country that doesn’t respect America as the most important world power, it is the question if the American people are accepting another war in the Middle East. The topic could be of influence in the next elections for Trump’s second term.
Choosing for option 2 in which tensions will be intact but the power battle will stop will be the best of the worst. To make this happen one of the two should make a turn. Trump makes small moves into this option by cancelling last moment an attack on Iran, because it would cost to many lives. In this light, it’s interesting that Trump searches for an international coalition. While Trump doesn’t stop the power battle, he tries to expand his power internationally. He might realise that a military collapse will not benefit him and America. The solution -according to Trump- has to come from international pressure to get Iran on its knees. He tries to influence international relations to achieve his goals.
Again, nothing is predictable and there are many factors of influence that can interfere in decision-making. Economics, international interests and global politics to name a few.
In the meantime, the battle will continue, let’s hope the smartest will win instead of the strongest.