Iran’s Poking At West With Capture Of Oil Tankers Heightens Risks Of Military Miscalculation
Rather than tangle with a stronger U.S. military, Iran is poking and prodding its Western antagonists in ways apparently designed to avoid triggering war, but that nonetheless seem to heighten the risk of missteps and miscalculation that could lead to an armed conflict with global consequences.
In a world run ragged by multiple crises and an unravelling of American global leadership, military confrontation in the Gulf poses risks that extend well beyond the region itself. One of the greater risks is to a global economy dependent on the continued flow of oil from Middle East producers in the Persian Gulf.
A Gulf crisis is the last thing the world needs when confidence between Washington and its European allies has been undermined by an unpredictable Donald Trump administration. Tensions between the US and China over multiple trade and other issues are not helping.
The tensions picked up on Friday with Iran reporting it had seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, one day after the U.S. said it destroyed an Iranian drone that had flown within threatening range of an American warship in the Strait of Hormuz. In June, the Iranians shot down a U.S. Navy drone in the same area, prompting President Donald J. Trump to authorize a military strike on Iran, only to call it off at the last moment.
These are high octane moments in the Gulf as America and its allies confront difficult choices in how to deal with an Iran that has clearly decided to test the limits of western tolerance.
Iran’s seizure in international sea-lanes of a British-owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf itself is highly provocative.
Britain, with Boris Johnson likely to be installed as its new prime minister this week, is facing a test of its resolve. Its ability to navigate its way through this crisis carries with it real risks of wider conflict.
Detention of the Stena Impero in retaliation for Britain’s seizure earlier this month off Gibraltar of the Iranian oil carrier, the Grace 1, represents a significant escalation of what had been a war of words between Tehran and London.
Iran’s wider purpose is to raise the costs to the west of maintaining security in the Persian Gulf in response to American-imposed sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy.
Attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the Gulf over the past month are widely attributed to Iran or its proxies. These attacks have reminded the international community that one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day.
Iran has the ability, if only temporarily, to shut down a choke point that is critical to the well-being of the global economy. Interference with oil shipments from the Gulf would prompt a spike in prices and prove a drag on slowing economic activity globally.
Tehran’s regime is playing a high stakes game born of its worsening economy. American-imposed sanctions are doing real harm to livelihoods and well-being of Iranians.
Reports of sporadic civil unrest over rising prices and shortages attest to the challenges facing the regime. Sanctions are crippling Iran’s ability to export its oil, overwhelmingly its main source of foreign exchange. The U.S. says that since oil sanctions were tightened last November, Iran has lost something like US$10bn in revenue foregone.
The International Monetary Fund reports that Iran’s economy shrank by 3.9% last year. It is expected to shrink by a further 6% this year. Unemployment has risen sharply.
At the same time, the value of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar has collapsed by 60% in the past year, adding to cost of imports and fueling inflation. There are reported shortages of imported medicines.
It is against this background that Tehran has clearly embarked on a campaign to remind the West of its ability to increase the costs of maintaining regional security.
Tehran’s message is this is not a zero game.
For Washington and its allies, the question becomes: how does the international community respond to Iranian provocations?
Does it allow the U.S., egged on by the Sunni Gulf state like Saudi Arabia, to lead it into a military confrontation with Iran, or does it seek to deescalate potential conflict?
Given the stakes involved, the wisest course would seem to be reopening discussions with Tehran about Gulf security and an American-imposed sanctions regime.
However, this will be easier said than done.
Washington would need to unscramble an ill-advised decision to abrogate a 2015 agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. The US reimposed sanctions that had been eased under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated painstakingly over some months by the Barack Obama administration.
Trump’s response to the latest escalation in the Gulf captured both the urgency and the unending difficulty of dealing with the Islamic Republic.
“Trouble, nothing but trouble,” Trump told reporters when asked about Iran’s Revolutionary Guard saying it had seized a British tanker.
From Iran’s point of view, the real trouble is Trump, who withdrew the United States last year from a 2015 nuclear deal that offered new hope for Iran’s faltering economy.
The British government said the Iranians had seized two vessels, but Iran later said the second ship had departed Iranian waters. The Iranians said the seizure was in response to Britain’s role in impounding an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier.
The incidents highlighted the precarious state of maritime security in the Gulf and reinforced the Trump administration’s argument for launching a new effort to intensify the monitoring of commercial shipping in and around the Gulf, which handles a large volume of international oil traffic. The administration is organizing what it calls Operation Sentinel with like-minded nations to deter Iran from interfering with commercial shipping.
In the meantime, U.S. Central Command said on Friday it put additional patrol aircraft into international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz to monitor the situation. A spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, said US Naval Forces Central Command was in contact with US ships operating in the area to “ensure their safety.”
The U.S. is also sending American forces, including fighter aircraft, air defense missiles and likely more than 500 troops, to a Saudi air base that became a hub of American air power in the Middle East in the 1990s. Putting U.S. combat forces back in the kingdom after an absence of more than a decade adds depth to the regional alignment of U.S. military power, which is mostly in locations on the Persian Gulf that are more vulnerable to Iranian missile attack.
The high-stakes sparring between Iran and the West is playing out while diplomats maneuver for the real prize: new negotiations to put tighter and longer-lasting wraps on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that are strangling Iran’s already weak economy.
Trump believes the international agreement he withdrew from is too short-term and too narrow because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for extremist militias across the Middle East. His administration has imposed additional sanctions on Iran, including ending a waiver on penalties against nations that buy Iranian oil.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hinted this past week at Tehran’s interest in a diplomatic solution. He said Iran would be willing to move up parliamentary ratification of an agreement it made with the International Atomic Energy Agency that outlined the agency’s access to Iranian nuclear sites and other information. He said this could be done before the scheduled 2023 ratification if the United States eased sanctions.
The Trump administration showed no immediate interest in that offer, but senior officials, including Trump, periodically emphasize their hope that war is avoided and that both sides can take the preferred diplomatic path.
“We need them to come to the table,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the State Department on Friday. “It’s the right way to resolve these challenges.”
Critics question whether the administration has a viable approach to Iran that can be executed without pushing the U.S. toward war.
“My fundamental question to this administration is: What is the strategy? I know that it is about maximum pressure, but to what end?” said Wendy Sherman, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs who helped the Obama administration negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal.
She said on Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that she believes the Iranians are weighing the likelihood that they will have to deal with Trump beyond 2020.
“If they think he will be re-elected or think there’s a good chance that he will be, I think we will continue to see proposals from the Iranians,” she said.
The administration faces pressure from members of its own party in Congress to take more aggressive action to punish Iran.
“The ayatollahs will continue their campaign of terror as long as we let them,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “Outrageous and lawless acts, such as this hijacking call for international condemnation and punishment.”
Trump suggested U.S. pressure is hitting Iran’s economy so hard that Iran will be forced at some point to come to the negotiating table.
“Iran is in big trouble right now,” he said. “Their economy is crashing. It’s coming to a crash. They’re trying to bring soldiers back home because they can’t pay them. A lot of bad things are happening to them. And it’s very easy to straighten out or it’s very easy for us to make it a lot worse.”