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Iran thinks it can pressure the US. It can’t

Confusion surrounds the attack on the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, with the stricken ships ablaze just south of the Strait of Hormuz and their 44 crewman rescued by the Iranian navy.


Precisely what weapons were used to cripple the Japanese and Norwegian-owned tankers is unclear, although it has been reported on US television that eyewitnesses saw shell-like projectiles before one of the ships was struck above the waterline.


Predictably, following the incident, the global price of oil spiked by 4.5 percent, due both to the lingering uncertainty about the nature of the attack and the fact that it is the second such outrage in a month, following the May 12 incident in which four ships were damaged off the coast of Fujairah.


But while the foreground remains murky, the background is far clearer. Despite their expected denials, there is little doubt that Iran lies behind the attack, either directly or through the sponsorship of its Houthi militia allies, fighting Saudi forces for control of Yemen.


Simply put, Tehran had the motive, means, and opportunity to perpetrate the crime. And the Iranians always act for a reason.


From Tehran’s perspective, there are reasons a-plenty for staging the attacks, as Iran’s fragile economy becomes ever-more constrained by American sanctions and the “maximum pressure” the Trump administration is bringing to bear on the republic.

The timing of yesterday’s attack is particularly suspect. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who is both personal friends with the volatile Trump while still maintaining a good relationship with the Iranian leadership — is presently on a mission to Tehran, where he is attempting to defuse the increasing tensions between the US and Iran.


Striking a Japanese-owned tanker while Abe is attempting to negotiate some sort of rapprochement between the two countries is an especially effective way for hard-liners in the Iranian government — think the Iranian Revolutionary Guards leadership who both economically and politically benefit from the conflict — to derail any effort to defuse tensions.


But at a broader, strategic level, this slow-moving crisis already has a sort of inexorable logic. On May 8, 2018, Donald Trump overturned the key foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration, declaring US determination to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


Scorning the accord, the Trump administration made clear that it had no intention of trying to woo Iran, to bring it in from the geostrategic cold, using trade and a relaxation of sanctions to entice it to behave as a status quo power and to halt its nuclear program.


Rather, the Trump administration views the JCPOA as the dangerous result of the Obama administration’s wishful thinking. Instead, the president and his senior advisers feared that continuing with the accord would lead to an economically strengthened Iran, now with debilitating sanctions removed, which could patiently out-wait the rest of the world.


Within the course of a generation, and without straying from the terms of the agreement, this economically emboldened Tehran would instead simply resume its nuclear program once the JCPOA’s time limits ran out, and waltz into the nuclear club with few questions asked.


Determined to avoid this happening, the White House has dramatically altered US policy on Iran, returning it to its traditional post-1979 stance of animosity. Trump has placed “maximum pressure” on the Iranian leadership, re-imposing US sanctions, threatening European countries and businesses (which still adhere to the JCPOA) with the potential loss of access to the vast US market if they continued doing business with Iran, and announcing his intent of sanctioning the whole of the Iranian energy industry, the life-blood of the country.


This latter initiative, even if only partially achieved, would drive a stake through the heart of the Iranian body politic. With unemployment running at over 12 percent, growth set to nosedive by 1.6 percent of GDP in 2018-19, and a further negative 3.8 percent in 2019-20, any further economic perils could well call into question the continued existence of the Iranian regime itself.


All this explains Iran’s defiant response. Tehran is hoping that, just short of war, it can make itself such a nuisance on the international stage that the Europeans would plead its case with the US to at least halt its unremitting pressure on the greatly threatened regime.


Iran is illustrating that the price to be paid for its continued ostracism will be an increasingly high one for the global economy, since it can disrupt global energy supplies at will while claiming a semi-plausible deniability.
This is brinksmanship of the first order and signals a major global political risk for the foreseeable future.


However, while Tehran may think counter-pressure will work with the anti-Iran hawks in the Trump administration, more likely their folly will merely confirm the administration in its thinking that Tehran is a revolutionary power that must be destroyed.