Tensions between Iran and Israel continue to rise in the aftermath of last week’s drone attack on the oil tanker MV Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman. Israel, as well as the United States and other Western nations blamed Iran for the attack. Yesterday, the attempted hijacking of another merchant ship in the same area has been linked to Iranian-supported forces in the region. Iran has denied claims made about its alleged involvement in both incidents. Then this morning, on the heels of that latest maritime incident, rockets were launched against Israel from targets in southern Lebanon, prompting counter-battery fire by Israeli artillery in response. By the afternoon, the situation appears to have quieted down, with the commander of UN Interim Force in Lebanon urging both parties to exercise restraint and avoid escalating on the first anniversary of the Beirut Port Explosion.
The Israeli government, however, has not been shy about laying the blame on Iran for recent the recent escalation in tensions around the region. At present, Israel is attempting to rally international action on Iran in response to last week’s attack on the Mercer Street. “We are working to rally the world, but at the same time we also know to act alone,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has stated. The meaning behind the last part of his statement serves as a warning to Iran and the world as well. If the international community is reluctant to take effective action against Iran, Israel act unilaterally.
This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.
Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.
The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.
Images and video released by the US military directly link Iran to the attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman yesterday. Iran, of course, has rejected the allegations, yet the evidence obtained and released by the US is quite damning. The video, taken by a US Navy aircraft, clearly shows an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the MT Kokuka Courageous and crewmen removed an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of the tanker before departing. Photos taken earlier, also released by the US military show the limpet mine attached to the ship’s hull.
The attacks on the oil tankers, one of which is owned by a Japanese company, came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran. This brings the timing of events into question, leading to the sneaking suspicion that Iran launched the tanker attacks during the meeting to create an alibi of sorts. After all, would Iran be foolish enough to attack a Japanese-owned oil tanker at the same time Japan’s leader is visiting the country for talks? Iran is hoping the world thinks the premise is absurd.
The big question for now is: what will the US response be? With the evidence in its possession, Washington can make a solid case to the UN, and the world and put Iran in a vulnerable position in the eyes of the world. Unfortunately, such action will likely do nothing to change the present formula in the Persian Gulf. Iran is lashing out in order to persuade the US to roll back the suffocating economic sanctions now in place. Tehran has taken a page from its old playbook and is using attacks on oil tankers to gain leverage over the US and demonstrate to the world the type of economic disruption Iran can bring to oil markets, and the global economy as a whole.
That is the theory at least.
In the next post we’ll discuss what form a possible US military response could take, and compare the similarities between events in the Persian Gulf area now and what took place there in 1987.
Two oil tankers were damaged this morning in the Gulf of Oman, victims of suspected attacks, although it is yet unclear who the initiator might’ve been. Distress calls were received from the vessels by US naval forces at 0612 local time, and 0700 local time respectively. The tankers involved in the attacks were the MT Front Altair, a Norwegian-owned vessel flagged in the Marshall Islands and the Kokua Courageous. The second tanker is Japanese-owned, and Panama-flagged. For insurance purposes, many merchant vessels, and oil tankers fly the flags of smaller, obscure nations even though the owners of the ships are usually companies based in larger First World nations. The US destroyer USS Bainbridge responded to the Kokua Courageous distress call and rescued 21 sailors.
These attacks come one month after two oil tankers were attacked off of the United Arab Emirates. That previous attack came as US-Iran tensions in the region were growing. The US has blamed Iran for the attack, but Tehran denied it.
This time around, initial suspicions are again going to be on Iran. Not surprisingly, Iranian government officials were fast in expressing shock over this morning’s attacks and attempting to distance Tehran from events in the Gulf of Oman. Also, coming as no surprise is the effect the attacks are having on oil markets. Crude prices have risen 4.5% in morning trading. The prospect of a possible US-Iran confrontation has shaken energy markets lately.
More updates will come later today, and in the evening.