The Iranians had laid mines with various purposes in mind. They had earlier sought to hit Iraqi oil exports by targeting Iraqi tankers. When these were reflagged and put under US protection, the costs of direct action increased dramatically. Mines were a cheap way to achieve the same end. They also had the effect of increasing insurance premiums, thereby, they hoped, increasing the pressure on Western states to bring an end to the conflict on Iranian terms. In those days you could see lines of tankers moored a few miles off Fujairah, waiting to enter the Strait of Hormuz, load and get out as quickly as possible
This policy backfired spectacularly. On April 14, 1988, a US naval vessel struck a mine in the Gulf. The mine was quickly and conclusively identified as Iranian. That led to a US operation that destroyed Iranian military positions on two refitted oil platforms in the lower Gulf and effectively sank or disabled the entire Iranian navy. In the early morning of July 3, the USS Vincennes, on hyper-alert for Iranian retaliation, mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner that had just taken off from Bandar Abbas, with the awful loss of 290 lives. I was on duty in the Foreign Office that night and remember vividly the agonizing process as the truth of what had happened emerged over a few hours. A few months later, Ruhollah Khomeini “drank the cup of poison” and agreed to end the war.
I write all this by way of preliminaries, because some people seem to forget their history. Many people still want to suggest that the latest attacks on four oil tankers off Fujairah are unlikely to have been Iranian-sponsored, that there’s no proof of anything and, in any case, it would be better not to know or to say because that way lies war between a trigger-happy US and an embattled Iran. They sometimes add that the multiple drone strikes subsequently launched by the Houthis on Saudi oil facilities had nothing to do with the maritime attacks and, in any case, the Houthis don’t take orders from Iran.
It’s hard to know where to start with all this. First of all, it is true that no one has come forward with clear evidence of what exactly happened off Fujairah. But reports suggest that the attacks were sophisticated, involving drones carrying some sort of explosive package designed to detonate at or just below the waterline of the ships that were targeted. But the details are a little less important than the motive. And the motive — just like 35 years ago — must have been to send a message to Gulf oil exporters and oil shippers. As in the 1980s, only the Iranians have such a motive. If they or someone acting on their behalf aren’t responsible, then who is? Daesh or Al-Qaeda? Assuming they had the presence and the capacity, what on earth would they gain? They are preoccupied elsewhere and always claim responsibility for their acts. So who else? The tooth fairy maybe?
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the Houthis gleefully announced that they had carried out the drone attacks in Saudi Arabia. Suggesting quite reasonably that there is a connection between these and the attacks off Fujairah is not the same as claiming that the Houthis are Iranian puppets. No one serious believes that, any more than they believe that Hezbollah, Badr, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq or Kata’ib Hezbollah are simply puppets. They all have their own interests and have occasionally pursued these against Iranian wishes, but they also share fundamental beliefs, loyalties, interests and goals. And we know perfectly well (not least because they have all acknowledged this publicly and the UN and others have documented it extensively) that the Iranians support each of them in different ways, politically, morally, socially, religiously and with supplies of money, weapons and training.
Some people will then say: That’s all very well, but we must not look as if we are jumping to conclusions, even if they are well founded, because that simply plays into the hands of US President Donald Trump and his warmongering officials. This is bizarre. Some of it comes out of a deep-seated belief — including in Europe — that Trump is simply the manifestation of a broader problem, that the US is an overweening imperial power that needs to be curbed.
Yet, if you look at what Trump has actually done in the Middle East and North Africa as president, it looks very similar in its essence to what Obama did: Seek to reduce exposure, don’t start any new wars, reduce troop numbers, avoid new commitments and encourage the regional powers to take responsibility for their own security. Regardless of the temporary reinforcement of US naval forces in the Gulf and speculation about troop movements, Trump has made it quite clear in his public statements that he is not seeking conflict and is willing to talk to Iran.
The details that have emerged about the intelligence on which the US has based its changed security posture in the last few weeks suggest that its concern about hostile Iranian intentions toward those US forces and other assets still based and active in the region are entirely justified. And again the Iranians and their allies have form — as anyone who remembers the following will know: Their sponsoring of violent insurgencies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the 1980s; the murderous attacks on the US Marine barracks and the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 respectively; the Kuwait bombings of 1983 and the attempted assassination of the emir of Kuwait in 1985; the attack on Khobar Towers in 1996; the vicious attacks by Iranian-backed militias on US and UK troops in Iraq from 2003 onwards; the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005; the thwarted 2011 plot to bomb a crowded restaurant in Washington in order to kill Adel Al-Jubeir; the recent assassination attempts in Europe and so on and so on.
Whatever you think about the competence and cohesion of this US administration, this is not about the US. It’s about Iran. Some people claim that its leaders lash out because they feel threatened, as if they’re just an innocent child on the school playground being bullied by the bigger boys. That gets it precisely the wrong way round. To paraphrase the gangster Hyman Roth in “The Godfather,” this is the business they have chosen.
I don’t actually think war is imminent. Nor — if oil prices and insurance rates are anything to go by — do the markets. The US posture, for all the reinforcements sent in the last couple of weeks, remains essentially defensive. Even the think-tankers seem to have calmed down a bit. But the problem of what to do about Iran, which continues to weave its webs of influence across the whole northern tier of the Arab world and down into Yemen, remains. The more it expands its influence and engages in grey-zone conflict — claiming to be protecting the Shiites of the region, persuading others to do its dirty work, and embarking on deniable attacks, whether physical or cyber — the more anger will mount and the more others will seek equivalent ways of defending themselves.
Nobody wants war, probably not even Iran. It is under enough economic pressure as it is. Ordinary Iranians are complaining, and Europe, China, India or Russia will not be able to compensate for the losses it will suffer under renewed sanctions. But it has used the last 30 years to build capacity and resilience and wants to preserve the political gains it made from the unwillingness of the Obama administration to challenge its growing hegemony. It is therefore probably more prepared than anyone else to take the region as close to war without war as possible. It is teetering on the edge with Israel. And the rocket attack on the old Green Zone in Baghdad over the weekend — whoever was responsible — was highly provocative. It will eventually misjudge. That will be a disaster.
The strategic problem is Iran’s gradual incorporation of Iraq and Syria, along with an increasingly Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, into a Greater Levantine Co-Prosperity and Armed Resistance Zone through the colonization of the political and security systems of these states and now, increasingly, their banking, energy, import and construction sectors. Military strikes alone won’t solve this, as we are seeing in southern Syria, where Iran’s forward creep continues in spite of repeated Israeli strikes. That means hitting Iran where it hurts — economically and financially. This, after all, was a major factor in Iran’s decision to take the nuclear negotiations more seriously after 2012. The Trump administration is clearly trying to repair some of the damage the previous administration did by relaxing this pressure prematurely and pretending it had a robust policy in Iran and Syria when it didn’t. Europe, if it wants to be relevant, should help, rather than complaining about how unfair it all is.
In the end, the real remedy would require Iran to agree to be bound by a new and credible security regime. The usual suggestions of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-type arrangement for the Gulf won’t work: Iran would simply use anything at a regional level to drive out the US and bully its neighbors. But there is another way. That would be for the UN secretary-general to invoke operative paragraph 8 of UN Security Council resolution 598 — the resolution that marked the end of the Iran-Iraq War — which called upon him to examine measures to enhance the security and stability of the region in consultation with Iran, Iraq and other states and, by implication, with the involvement of the Security Council.
That wasn’t done at the time. But, if Iran now starts to feel enough sustained pain to want a proper deal, then it could offer a way out of this maze. This all depends, of course, on Iran being willing to act as a normal member of the community of nations, rather than as a perpetually dissatisfied disruptor. Ultimately, it’s an Iranian choice. And if it opts for continued proxy conflicts, something will eventually give.