By Edward Carney
On Friday, the Trump administration elaborated on its allegation that Iranian forces were behind the previous day’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, while Iran continued to deny responsibility. Meanwhile, various third-parties have expressed concern over the potential for this situation to spiral into more direct confrontation between the two countries. But the Trump administration has insisted that its recent military deployments in the region were intended only for deterrence, and the White House may strive to use the latest attacks as grounds for pursuing broader international support for further such actions, possibly including the shadowing of commercial vessels passing through the Persian Gulf.
Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to close the entrance to the Gulf – the Strait of Hormuz – in response to perceived Western aggression such as American efforts to impede Iran’s oil exports. At the beginning of May, the US stopped extending sanctions waivers to importers of Iranian oil, prompting another steep drop-off in Iran’s international commerce. This in turn sparked the further escalation of tensions, which ostensibly culminated in Thursday’s attacks. Additionally, these attacks were preceded by the sabotage of four other tankers that had been anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May.
The Trump administration and other opponents of the Iranian regime were quick to blame Iran for those attacks, as well. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that evidence had been uncovered to suggest the use of Iranian mines in the earlier attacks, though that evidence has not yet been presented to the public. Thursday’s attacks have been described as following a similar pattern, and Fox News explained on Friday that the use of magnetic “limpet mines” became standard practice for the Islamic Republic of Iran during the “tanker wars” that developed against the backdrop of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
In contrast to last month’s sabotage, visual evidence for Iran’s involvement in Thursday’s blasts was made available almost immediately. A US military surveillance video apparently captured footage of a vessel associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps pulling up alongside the Kokuka Courageous, one of the two ships damaged in the Gulf of Oman, whereupon an object on the ship’s hull was removed and taken away. American officials explained that this appeared to be limpet mine that failed to detonate during the attack.
The Japense-owned Kokuka Courageous was reportedly struck by two blasts over a three-hour period, while the Norwegian-owned Front Altair was hit once and caught fire. Both ships were abandoned by their crews, and in the former case, this order was apparently given after the US Navy informed its crew of the presence of the aforementioned object on the hull.
The footage of that object’s removal was presumably viewed by White House officials before they made statements publicly blaming Iran for the explosions. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also stated that the administration’s official conclusion was based on a number of factors, including unspecified intelligence, knowledge of the general types of weapons and the level of expertise involved, and the fact that non-state actors in the region do not have their own access to these things.
Neither this nor the subsequent release of the surveillance footage was sufficient to convince all those from whom the White House would likely expect support in advance of further deterrence measures. German officials, for instance, responded to the footage by saying that it did not establish Iran’s guilt on its own. And an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in the wake of the attacks did not yield any collective statement affirming the administration’s position.
Other allies of the US were more easily convinced, and some apparently did not see the surveillance footage as being necessary to establish that Iran was the likeliest culprit.
The United Kingdom said on Friday that no other state or non-state actor could be responsible for the incident. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt added in a statement, “These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilizing Iranian behavior and pose a serious danger to the region.”
There has been little international disagreement over this potential danger.
Not only has the pattern for such escalation been set by last month’s deployment of a US aircraft carrier group and B-52 bombers to the region, but the Iranian limpet mine attacks during the tanker wars ultimately resulted in the US Navy accompanying commercial traffic through the Strait. This response would almost certainly be repeated if the perception remained of danger from Iranian attack.
There are some elements within the Iranian regime who are so committed to the defiance of Western hegemony that they are willing to risk open conflict with the US. Some may even be convinced that the Islamic Republic is actually capable of winning such a war. Of course, this type of view is rarely taken seriously by Western policymakers, military experts, or an educated Iranian populous. But this is not to say that Iranian tactics of asymmetrical warfare, such as mining the Strait of Hormuz, would not cause serious problems for the US and the world.
President Trump has said that he does not believe any Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz would last long. But he has also repeatedly expressed his willingness to hold talks with the Iranian regime, without condition, for the sake of convincing them to scale back their paramilitary presence in the broader region.
By contrast, leading Iranian officials have disregarded the prospect of such talks. And on Thursday, the day of the tanker attacks, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei refused to reply to a message from President Trump, which had reportedly been conveyed to him by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Tehran had been intended to help de-escalate tensions with the US, but the Japanese position was complicated by the tanker attacks, which involved targets that were both carrying products to Japan.
Furthermore, an article in the Washington Post underlined the fact that this faction, being supported by the virtually unmitigated authority of the supreme leader, has unique opportunities to carry out military operations through the Revolutionary Guards even when the overall political and military establishment does not approve or is not aware of the plans at all.
That article explained that “Iran has two naval forces with separate missions and commands,” and it asserted that this “adds a layer of complexity” to the nation’s responsibility for the attacks, even if the US account thereof is correct. While the regular Iranian Navy is nominally controlled by elected bodies, the IRGC Navy answers only to Khamenei and has a track record of confrontation with Western vessels and an expanding mandate, despite supposedly having a lesser geographic reach. In theory, the IRGC could even operate in defiance of missions that have been established by parliament or the presidency for other military forces.
But the Post effectively acknowledges that this is a moot point in view of Khamenei’s status as supreme leader. Under Iran’s theocratic system, his decisions may override that of any and all elected officials. This has led to a situation in which those elected officials are, in practice, “mere facilitators” for the will of the supreme leader.
Secretary of State Pompeo and others have outlined a dozen fundamental changes in the Iranian regime’s behavior that must occur before economic sanctions are lifted, but it would be difficult to recognize the same regime in Tehran if this ultimatum were answered.
To the extent that the IRGC reflects the will of the supreme leader, it is clear that he presently has no interest in directing his authority toward compromise. In addition to being credibly accused of carrying out the actual attacks, the IRGC reportedly surrounded the Front Altair and prevented tugboats from approaching to tow it back to port after its fires had been extinguished. The crew of that tanker was initially rescued by another commercial vessels, but it too was surrounded by IRGC attack boats and ordered to release the 23 sailors into Iranian custody, where they have been held ever since, their images displayed on Iranian state television while the walk the fine line between “rescued” and “detained.”