With the crisis between Iran and the United States showing no signs of cooling down anytime soon, the prospect of possible US military action is now increasing. The US is presently moving additional forces into the Persian Gulf region. The latest deployment’s numbers are modest, totaling 1,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Not a massive surge of forces by any means, however, the deployment does increase the level of combat power available to US commanders in the area.
The current crisis is similar in some ways to the 1987 US-Iran crisis and confrontation in the Persian Gulf. As was the case back in ’87, the recent attacks against oil tankers threatens to spark a conflict that would have a detrimental effect on world markets to say the least. The unhindered flow of oil from the Middle East to Europe and Asia is crucial to the global economy. Further attacks on oil tankers will interrupt the oil flow, and lead to a longer, more consequential disruption.
In order to prevent that from happening now, the protection of oil tankers needs to be guaranteed. The US Navy was faced with basically the same situation in 1987 and adopted a convoy system. It was a successful operation even though there were additional Iranian attacks on oil tankers, most notably the Bridgeton incident. Operation Earnest Will, as the effort was named, became the largest naval convoy operation since World War II and ran from July, 1987 through September, 1988.
Along with convoy protection, US naval forces also made significant efforts to stop Iranian forces from attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. In some instances where Iranian forces successfully struck a ship, the US retaliated swiftly and decisively. In October of 1987 a reflagged US tanker was hit by an Iranian Silkworm missile. US naval forces responded by shelling oil platforms used by Iranian military units to launch attacks, eventually seizing and destroying them. In April, 1988 the USS Samuel B Roberts, a frigate, hit a mine in the Persian Gulf. The US response was Operation Praying Mantis, a large-scale air-sea attack that put Iran’s navy out of business, directly led to Iran ending its attacks on shipping, and motivated Tehran to seek a ceasefire in its eight year long war with Iraq.
As the situation in the Gulf stands today, it is not outside the realm of possibility to see a similar US military option developing soon.
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.
Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday afternoon it is suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea after a Saudi oil tanker was attacked and damaged by Houthi forces in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The move is extraordinarily swift and decisive, and holds the potential to disrupt shipping in the area. The Red Sea shipping lanes are a highly used route for Saudi Arabian oil tankers, as well as international commerce. The Saudi move could motivate other nations to follow suit if the attacks continue.
This is not the first time the Bab el Mandeb Straits has been used by Houthi rebels to launch attacks on shipping. In 2016 US Naval forces intercepted two anti-ship missiles that were launched by Houthis and targeted at US ships in the area. This past April a Saudi oil tanker was attacked in the strait, receiving minor damage. Saudi Arabia’s response then was more restrained. Oil shipments continued, and Riyadh assured nervous observers the incident would not affect oil supplies.
The war of words between Iran and the United States, and the coming snapback of sanctions against Iran on 6 August threaten to heighten current tensions. Wednesday’s attack on the tanker could be a sign of things to come. In response to the sanctions, Iran might encourage the Houthis, and other proxy groups to intensify attacks against tankers, and resume confrontational skirmishes between Iranian naval forces and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas. So far in 2018 there have been no incidents between US and Iranian vessels. Before the Iranian nuclear deal was implemented, and even afterward, Tehran has used the harassment tactics to try and strengthen its position. They might turn to it once again, if some of the rhetoric coming from inside of Iran is any indication.