America's 'Extreme Pressure' on Iran Risks Middle East Chaos, China Warns

The Chinese foreign minister is calling on the U.S. to respect international law and avoid any further escalation in tensions in the Persian Gulf, warning that the situation could quickly descend into chaos.

Speaking in Beijing having just met the Syrian foreign minister, Wang Yi warned that the current tensions between Washington and Tehran risk opening a "Pandora's box" that could affect the whole region.

According to Reuters, Wang said China was "very concerned" about the situation in the Gulf, where the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic standoff is being fueled by fresh troop deployments and covert attacks on commercial shipping.

"We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora's box," Wang said. "In particular, the U.S. side should alter its extreme pressure methods," he added.

The U.S. has blamed Iran for multiple attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf of Oman, most recently last week. Supposed evidence of Iranian involvement has failed to win over all international observers, though allies including the U.K., Israel and Saudi Arabia have accepted the American version of events. Iran has denied all involvement.

On Monday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said 1,000 more troops would be sent to the Middle East to boost American defenses against a potential Iranian threat. This is in addition to the 1,500 already earmarked for deployment after last month's tanker bombings and a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

But Wang warned that the U.S. must exercise restraint, "Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law," he said. "Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis."

The crisis began when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—also known as the Iran nuclear deal—last year, demanding a new agreement with tighter restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, ballistic missile research and regional influence. The other signatories—the U.K., Germany, France, China, Russia and the European Union—have sought to keep the deal alive regardless of U.S. opposition.

Trump's withdrawal allowed the U.S. to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran. And last month, Washington began revoking waivers issued to certain nations allowing them to still do business with Iran, aiming to cut Tehran's oil exports to zero.

On Monday, Iran announced that its stockpile of enriched uranium—used at low enrichment for nuclear power and high enrichment for nuclear weapons—would soon surpass the limit set by the JCPOA, raising fears that the deal would collapse entirely.

Wang stressed that the nuclear deal was the only way to solve the nuclear question in Iran, and called on Tehran to respect the agreement. "We understand that relevant parties may have different concerns but first of all the comprehensive nuclear deal should be properly implemented," he said. "We hope that Iran is cautious with its decision-making and [will] not lightly abandon this agreement."

Alexander Sehmer of the security and geopolitical consultancy Falanx Assynt, told Newsweek that Iran's alleged actions are carefully measured to avoid all-out war. The actions "are proportional to the ramping up of U.S. pressure on Iran and calibrated to cause significant damage and disruption, but also to maintain the right degree of deniability and avoid forcing an outright confrontation," he said.

Fears of a spiraling regional war carry some weight, he added, noting that other actors are already indirectly involved in the U.S.-Iranian standoff. "The Houthis in Yemen are encouraged by the Iranians to bomb Saudi targets and there is the potential for conflict in Iraq where Iranian and U.S. elements overlap," he explained.

The threat to commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf is one element most likely to prompt a multinational response, Sehmer added. "It's possible to imagine a Western coalition forming similar to the multinational anti-piracy taskforce that came together to combat Somali pirates in the mid-2000s, with the intention of protecting shipping in the Gulf," he suggested. However, Sehmer noted that "the risks are much greater confronting the Iranian navy than they are tackling Somali pirates."

This article has been updated to include comments from Alexander Sehmer.

Iran, US, war, pressure, chaos, China
This file photo shows an Iranian flag on February 25, 2019 at the Shahid Beheshti Port in the southeastern Iranian coastal city of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty