Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz over the last 24 hours threaten to move the current standoff between Tehran and the West into dangerous waters. The seizure of a British-flagged tanker yesterday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stoked tensions in the region. A second tanker owned by a British company but Liberian-flagged was also stopped and boarded but subsequently permitted to move on. Iran claims the seizure is a “reciprocal” action, apparently in response to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria on 4 July. An IRGC spokesman released a statement claiming that this was the case. However, a government message put out via Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) claims the tanker was seized because it rammed an Iranian trawler in the Strait of Hormuz.
For the moment, London appears to be ruling out military action as a response. Given the current state and dispositions of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, this does not come as a surprise. Britain will not move unilaterally. The Queen’s aircraft and warships will only go into action in concert with a US effort. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s actions as “destabilizing and illegal.” He also warned of “serious consequences” for Tehran.
The tanker seizures also serve as a warning to the United States and the West that commercial vessels using the Strait of Hormuz are at the mercy of Iran. The Iranian government’s threats to close the strait and attempt to strangle the global economy have gained more credibility over the last few days. Tehran’s hope is that the tanker seizures will lead to European pressure for the US to scale back its economic sanctions in place against Iran.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to ensure the safe passage of vessels operating in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through a multi-national maritime effort. This will be discussed later in the weekend.
The United States was primed and ready to begin attacks against the Iranian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and radar sites responsible for shooting down an unarmed US Navy MQ-4 drone over the Strait of Hormuz. At the last moment, President Trump cancelled the strikes, citing the unacceptably high risk of Iranian casualties. In Trump’s view the Iranians had shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle. Responding with air and cruise missile strikes that could kill up to 150 Iranians was not a proportionate reply. It remains unknown whether the strike plans have been permanently cancelled, or placed on a temporary hold for the moment.
President Trump’s pause presents an opportunity for Iranian government to dial back its belligerent actions and turn off the crisis without losing face. Trump has demonstrated that the US is prepared to response militarily if a single US life is lost as a result of Iranian military action. By not retaliating due to concerns about casualties, Trump has seized the moral high ground and shown the world that the United States is not actively seeking a conflict with Iran. The ball is now in Teheran’s court. If Iran chooses to remain on the path it is currently on, it will inevitably lead to US military action, and even more economic sanctions.
The root cause of this crisis is the current state of Iran’s economy. US sanctions have placed a tremendous burden on the government, which now seems to be irreversibly tethered to the belief Washington will ease the sanctions as a result of the pressure Iran, and its proxies are applying in the region.
The next forty-eight hours could reveal much about Iran’s future intentions, and the direction this crisis will take.
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.
A military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz earlier today has resulted in the deaths of at least twenty-four people. The attackers, who were wearing military uniforms, opened fire on the military procession from a nearby park with small arms. Soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) appear to have been the intended targets. Eight members are among the dead. Two of the gunmen were killed, and another pair taken into custody by security forces.
The Iranian government wasted no time in labeling the incident a terror attack launched by Iran’s Arab minority. And of course, included in the first salvo of statements from Tehran, was a less than subtle suggestion that the United States had orchestrated the attack. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated: “Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable.” In the past, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of supporting separatist groups in Iran’s Arab minority. The government claims these groups have been becoming very active in Ahvaz, and other sections of southwestern Iran in recent months.
Ahvaz holds another less than stellar distinction. The city has been the site of many anti-government protests since last year. This fact leaves open the possibility that today’s attack was more of a political statement than a random attack aimed at sewing confusion, and chaos. The fact that IRGC soldiers were targeted speaks volumes. In Iranian society, the IRGC is the sword and shield of the government, serving in a role similar to that of the KGB of the former Soviet Union. A direct attack against them is nothing short of an attack against the regime, and might indicate a new round of domestic unrest is on the horizon.
Another possibility, admittedly more cynical but not outside the realm of possibility for Tehran, is that today’s attack was orchestrated by the government and will be used as justification for a nationwide crackdown. The sting from US economic sanctions, and failed Iranian economic policies are bringing on discontent among Iran’s people. Instead of standing by idly and waiting for a new round of protests and riots to break out, Tehran could be moving to nip it in the bud. If so, expect there to be more incidents similar to the attack in Ahvaz occurring around Iran in the coming weeks.
Since US economic sanctions were reimposed on Iran early this month, Iran’s government and military leadership has responded with salvos of defiant, aggressive warnings, promises, and predictions. The most recent Iranian saber-rattling has focused on the Strait of Hormuz. First it was President Hassan Rouhani stating that if Iran’s oil exports are threatened by US sanctions, the Middle East’s other exports will be threatened too. This was interpreted to be a thinly veiled threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Now it is the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy making assurances that Iran has control of the strait, and the Persian Gulf. General Alireza Tangsiri’s comments have raised some eyebrows around the world, and prompted a response from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. SecState responded with a tweet on Monday night which clarified the US position and left little room for interpretation: “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait is an international waterway. The United States will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways.”
The strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz cannot be overemphasized. Saber-rattling, or a subtle reminder of Iran’s willingness to use military power in the area is often enough to give global oil markets a panic attack. Iran’s military is not capable enough to permanently close the strait. It can disrupt commercial traffic for a period of time, however. As Pompeo said, the United States is committed to ensuring the safe flow of commerce in international waterways. If Iran sparks a crisis in the straits, a strong US response will come almost immediately.