By Edward Carney
It was widely reported on Thursday that two commercial vessels had been damaged by explosions in the Gulf of Oman. Both of the ships were reportedly en route to Asian at the same time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran, on a mission to help de-escalate tensions that have been rising since the US substantially ramped up pressure in the form of both sanctions and military deployments in April and May.
It is unlikely to be regarded as mere coincidence that one of the affected ships was also owned by a Japanese shipping company, though it was flying the flag of Panama while reportedly carrying methanol before the damage led to it being abandoned by its crew. The other ship is Norwegian-owned and was flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, but was also reportedly destined for Japan with a shipment of petrochemical products.
This latter fact is made even more significant by the fact that the apparent attack on Middle Eastern shipping lanes comes roughly a week after the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, this time specifically targeting the country’s largest petrochemical manufacturer. The Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company was accused of using revenue from its roughly 50-percent share of Iranian petrochemical exports to support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
That paramilitary group, in turn, is recognized as the primary financier and handler of regional militant organizations like Hezbollah, which are likely candidates to undertake missions of sabotage or terrorism stemming from the Islamic Republic. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the latest seaborne attacks, although these bore some resemblance to earlier attacks on four tankers that were anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
In that case, investigations reportedly yielded evidence of magnetic mines known to be used by Iranian forces. Tehran’s adversaries, including the Trump administration and the government of Saudi Arabia, were therefore quick to accuse Iran of being behind the attacks, and of presumably coordinating them with an unspecified proxy group. These accusations were arguably strengthened by the nearly simultaneous occurrence of drone and missile strikes on targets inside Saudi Arabia, by the Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthi.
For its part, the UAE stopped short of accusing Iran by name but acknowledged the likelihood that the sabotage incidents were carried out by non-state actors with state backing. The response to Thursday’s attacks has been much the same, but was perhaps even more intense and more immediate in light of the fact that they involved ships in transit as opposed to ships at anchor, and appeared to have done more damage.
One of the targeted ships, the Kokuka Courageous, supposedly experienced two explosions in a three-hour period. There was some speculation that the other, the Front Altair, had been struck by a torpedo. But some sources pointed to the likelihood of magnetic mines being involved in each of Thursday’s attacks, as well as in the previous attacks near the UAE.
Just hours after the two tankers were abandoned in the Gulf of Oman, CBS News quoted an American defense official as saying it was “highly likely Iran caused these attacks.”
Soon thereafter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered remarks that appeared to erase the implicit uncertainty. “It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” he said.
Speaking to Fox News, Jack Keane, a retired US four-star general and chairman of the board for the Institute for the Study of War, went even further than Pompeo, highlighting the apparent motives for the attacks. “The Iranians are trying to put pressure on the U.S. allies and the international community for the U.S. to ease off on the economic sanctions that we have imposed on Iran,” he said before urging the Trump administration to take the opposite tack and to continue expanding upon the existing pressure in a bid to compel changes in the Iranian regime’s behavior.
Keane conceded that there had been no such change so far, but he noted that by causing the Iranian economy to shrink by nearly four percent over the past year, the sanctions had closed of some of the revenue that would otherwise be channeled into Iran’s terrorist proxies.
This praise for Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, and the advocacy for more of the same, are evidently much different from the sorts of perspectives that were carried to Tehran by the Japanese Prime Minister, among others. But it is now an open question whether his more conciliatory approach to the recent tensions will survive the latest escalation apparently coming directly from Iran and its allies.
This was the message of an article published in Fortune, which emphasized the tanker attacks’ implications for global perceptions of the security of the oil trade. Tehran has threatened at various times to close the Strait of Hormuz if the US tries to undermine Iranian exports. Of course, that is exactly what the White House accomplished by withdrawing all waivers for purchases of Iranian oil last month, thus contributing to a situation in which the Islamic Republic has lost upwards of 10 billion dollars in revenue since last November.
The tanker attacks can easily be regarded as an effort to demonstrate both Iran’s willingness and its ability to follow through on such threats. But that potentially changes the geopolitical calculations for Japan and other nations that rely upon trade from a range of Middle Eastern countries for their energy needs. Eighty percent of Japanese crude oil imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz, as does approximately one-third of all the world’s sea-traded petroleum.
So far, Iran has steadfastly denied all accusations regarding its involvement in the recent attacks, including the strikes on Saudi pipelines and airports that have been openly claimed by the Houthi. But the regime’s broader commentary may weaken the force of these denials, insofar as it helps to paint the picture of a vulnerable nation attempting to portray the global power imbalance as being different than it is in reality.
Iranian state media boastfully seized upon the reports of explosions just as quickly as did Trump administration officials and Tehran’s other critics. As Reuters noted, the Islamic Republic News Agency claimed almost immediately that the Front Altair had completely sunk, while the ship’s owners insisted that it was damaged and abandoned in the Gulf, but still afloat. The same outlet also stated that all 44 sailors from both ships had been picked up by Iranian naval forces and taken to an Iranian port, even though the US Navy announced that its own USS Bainbridge had picked up the 21 crew members from the Kokuka Courageous.
It has been acknowledged the other ship’s crew had indeed been taken by Iran, but the US pushed back against the notion that this constituted their “rescue” by the Islamic Republic. As CBS News noted, the sailors were evidently given no choice about being unloaded at the nearest Iranian port-of-call before being transported to another in the same country. This fact was described as representing a “fine line between rescued and detained.” And this may be precisely the perception that Iranian state media hopes to encourage.
In February 2016, shortly after the implementation of the nuclear deal that had been negotiated between Iran and six world powers led by the United States, 10 American sailors were taken captive by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after they drifted into Iranian territorial waters during a training exercise. Although the detainees were eventually released unharmed, their images were first broadcast extensively on Iranian television, where at least one sailor was forced to apologize for the incident.
These arrests were perceived as such a prominent symbol of resistance to American power in the region that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei awarded Iran’s highest military honor to the IRGC officers involved in the incident, which was also set to be commemorated with a statue.
General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command, recently concluded that deterrent measures such as the deployment of an aircraft carrier to Middle Eastern waters had prompted a partial withdrawal of Iran’s regular naval forces, if not its regional proxies. But defiance of Western power and influence certainly remains a defining feature of Iranian policies.
In talks between the two heads of state this week, Khamenei attempted to reassure the visiting Japanese Prime Minister about Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the wake of threats that it might resume higher-level uranium enrichment if not otherwise incentivized by European trading partners. Iran “will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and… it has no such intentions,” he said, but then added that if the regime did desire to obtain such weapons, “America could not do anything.”
Although Abe reportedly bore a message from the US president during his visit on Wednesday and Thursday, Khamenei once again rebuffed Mr. Trump’s standing offer of unconditional negotiations, saying, “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him now or in the future.”