For Iran, Wednesday was a day marked by consequential and very public setbacks both at sea and on land.
In the Gulf of Oman, the Khark (multiple spellings of this particular vessel are common: Kharg, Kharq) an Iranian AOR (fleet-type replenishment oiler) experienced a major fire and sank. The incident occurred while the vessel, Iran’s largest, was taking part in exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. The fire broke out at 0225 hours local time on 2 June and spread quickly. As the situation worsened. Khark’s crew was evacuated from the ship with nearby vessels and Iranian military helicopters lending assistance. Khark sank at 0800 hours, six hours after the initial fire broke out. There are no reports of deaths, but two dozen crewmen suffered varying degrees of minor injuries according to Iranian media outlets.
As if this weren’t bad enough, later in the day a major oil refinery located just south of Tehran experienced a near-catastrophic fire. The blaze at the Tondgooyan Petrochemical Company’s refinery began Wednesday evening (local time) and has finally been extinguished following an intense effort by firefighters. A large plume of black smoke was visible over the Iranian capital city for much of the day. Iranian government officials have said the cause of the fire was a leak in two waste tanks at the facility that affected a nearby gas pipeline. There have been no reports of deaths or major damage beyond the refinery grounds.
Investigations are underway to determine the cause of both fires. Industrial accidents are common, especially in Iran where maintenance and repair efforts are irregular and marred by corruption. As far as Khark goes, the Iranian maritime force has been dealing with a series of fires and accidents in recent years which have had a significant effect on the nation’s maritime footprint. Despite the loss of Khark, two Iranian vessels are continuing their trek from home waters towards Venezuela. That will be discussed more later today or tomorrow.
As for the causes of Khark’s loss and the Tondgooyan refinery blaze, if they were not failures of equipment or something similar, then it’s safe to assume the Mossad had a very good Wednesday.
Iran has been busy on this first Monday of the new year. The Iranian government announced it has started enriching uranium up to twenty percent at an underground facility at Fordo, a town situated south of the holy city of Qom. According to the announcement, orders for the enrichment were given personally by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As the announcement was being made, news broke that Iran had seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker, named Hankuk Chemi, was stopped by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) naval forces for violating ‘environmental protocols’ and led to the port of Bandar Abbas. A short while later, the South Korean foreign ministry demanded the immediate release of the tanker, adding that South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz were dispatched to the area. Tehran admitted to the seizure, yet hours earlier had said a South Korean envoy was expected to visit Iran in the coming days to negotiate the release of roughly $7 bn in Iranian assets now frozen in South Korea. The Iranian government is claiming it is seeking the release of the funds to use as payment for COVAX, a COVID-19 vaccine effort being headed-up by the World Health Organization.
The two events have come to the forefront in a time of already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Of the two, the uranium enrichment is the more consequential. A decade ago, Iran’s decision to enrich up to 20% nearly brought on an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, returning to that same enrichment level brings on the risk of a US strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Added to this are the very recent threats Iran has been making against the US as the 1 year mark of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Last week, US B-52 bombers made a show-of-force demonstration in the Persian Gulf area as Tehran vowed attacks against US interests in the region. Last night, the Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to remain on station in the region. This came three days after the group had been ordered to leave.
On Monday the Trump administration announced a new series of sanctions against Iran, the latest phase in the US campaign to exert maximum pressure on Tehran. The latest batch of sanctions will target Iran’s weapons manufacturing industry. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the action today at a joint press conference with the principal members of the Trump administration’s national security team. President Trump had earlier signed an executive order related to the sanctions.
“Today, I will take the first action under this new executive order by sanctioning the Iranian Ministry of Defense and armed forces logistics and Iran’s defense industries organization and its director,” Pompeo said.
The announcement comes as the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York City. This year, the gathering will be like no other in the UN’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the diplomatic interaction and speeches will come through digital means. The renewal of UN-sponsored sanctions against Iran was expected to be a topic for discussion at the General Assembly but under the circumstances it no longer appears probable.
Iran’s currency reacted to a previous US announcements earlier in the weekend that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored. The rial hit a record low on Sunday owing largely to Iranian-US tensions. The rial has lost roughly half of its value in 2020.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the appearance of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in close proximity to the Iranian coast. Nimitz and her escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz late last week, and is the first US aircraft carrier to operate within the Gulf since November, 2019.
This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.
In light of the worsening situation in the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waterways, United States efforts to build a multi-national naval force dedicated to the protection of oil tankers are ramping up. The Trump administration has approached a number of NATO allies as well as American allies in the Middle East. The creation of a naval force is the next logical step in the drama unfolding in the Persian Gulf. Iranian actions against oil tankers in the Gulf continue and Tehran shows no indications of easing anytime soon. Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises and operations have become a regular part of the US Navy’s playbook and they will be used to one extent or another in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) is preparing to reactivate Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. PSAB, as it is affectionately known to most folks who’ve been there was the predominant US air installation in the Middle East until 2003. In the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom operations at PSAB were transferred to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Since then, Al Udeid has been the main US airbase in the region.
Now US access to Al Udeid is no longer guaranteed. Qatar has been moving away from its traditional Gulf State allies since the Saudi-sponsored embargo, and towards Tehran in some ways. As a result, the Qataris could possibly place restrictions on US air operations at Al Udeid. Such restrictions would have an adverse effect on all US military operations in and around the Persian Gulf. Instead of running that risk, the US is preparing PSAB in case it is needed. And according to some sources at CENTCOM, Prince Sultan is slated to become the main hub of US air activity in the Middle East regardless of what happens with Al Udeid and the Qataris.