Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran’s Supreme
Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on June 13, hoping to ease tensions between Iran
and the US. When Abe offered to convey an Iranian reply to a message from
President Trump, Khamenei declined. Indeed, it appears that Khamenei’s reply at
that exact moment was already being sent in the form of twin attacks against
commercial tankers in the Gulf. A Norwegian-owned ship loaded with
petrochemicals erupted into flames. The other targeted ship was carrying Japanese
cargo (methanol) in transit to Singapore. Was this a calculated snub to Abe’s
Although US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials were
quick to identify Iran as the likely culprit, it is right to allow a full
investigation before definitively apportioning blame. However, experts agree
that four previous attacks against oil tankers last month had Iranian
fingerprints, and there is only one serious suspect in the frame.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to obstruct commercial shipping
in the Strait of Hormuz. Just days ago, in a fire-breathing speech, Hezbollah
leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened US forces with “annihilation” and proclaimed
that “the entire region will burn ... a barrel of oil will be $200 or $300.”
Nasrallah’s prediction was uncannily accurate, with oil
prices rocketing within minutes of the tanker attacks. Even Mohammed Javad
Zarif, Iran’s usually mild-mannered foreign minister, recently threatened that
the US “cannot expect to stay safe.”
How, then, can these cheap mobsters feign outrage about
fingers pointing at them when things start blowing up?
Tehran knows that its disintegrating economy cannot withstand
a possible six more years of Trump. The regime appears to have concluded that
offense is the best form of defense and is consequently moving toward a
war-footing. Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, last month instructed
proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen to prepare to target Western assets.
The Gulf of Oman attacks came the day after Iranian missiles
hit a crowded arrivals hall at Abha airport, in Saudi Arabia’s southwest,
causing dozens of casualties. The moderate climate of this attractive region
makes it a favored summer destination for Saudi and Gulf holidaymakers. The
airport was thus at its busiest. A Houthi spokesman claiming responsibility for
the Abha strikes threatened to target all Saudi airports. Indeed, missiles were
fired at Riyadh airport in 2017.
Such provocations are part of attempts to embroil Middle Eastern states in the conflict using Iran’s proxy armies across the region. The prospects for Iraqi stability would be bleak, indeed. There has been a recent spike in unrest in Qatif, and it is only a matter of time before Tehran stirs the pot again in Bahrain’s villages. How long before Israel joins the fray, bringing down hell and destruction on Lebanon and southwestern Syria?
Deterrence only works when it is shown to be serious. The US administration has played its hand badly, gaining a reputation for barking very loudly, but failing to bite. Khamenei was likely reassured by Trump plaintively declaring that he does not want conflict. Given that soaring oil prices could torpedo a teetering world economy, and with the US leader staking his 2020 reelection prospects on economic growth, the Gulf attacks seem calculated by Khamenei to hit Trump where it hurts. Furthermore, the attacks represent a blunt message to the world: “We can still hurt you.”
Maritime experts point out that it is impossible to fully
protect civilian shipping. Hundreds of oil tankers and commercial ships are
continually moving through the Hormuz chokepoint. The repeated nature of these
attacks means that oil prices may remain elevated. Shipping and insurance costs
could soar, with severe knock-on effects for the global economy, particularly
since the afflicted companies have signaled that they will suspend Gulf
operations and other corporations may follow. As was the case when Iran mined
Gulf waters during the 1980s, there are also dangerous environmental
consequences for fish stocks and complex ecosystems when huge tankers loaded
with petroleum products are torpedoed.
Enough of Iran’s good-cop-bad-cop games: Seducing the
Europeans with smiling, but impotent, Zarif and Rouhani, while Khamenei and
Soleimani implement a strategy infinitely more aggressive than anything
Khomeini ever dreamed up. Russia is urging negotiations to calm tensions, yet
it was Moscow that opened a Pandora’s box by aiding Tehran’s expansion in Syria
and elsewhere. What does Putin care that there were Russian nationals on the
This terrorist regime and its proxy figureheads have
repeatedly and explicitly warned us that they intend to engulf the region in
flames and torch the global economy. Why do we always fail to take Iran at its
word? When tensions flared in May, European observers queued up to blame the
Trump administration and portray this as a failure of US policy. These latest
unprovoked attacks suggest that the escalation is fueled from one side only.
World leaders must not sit back and wait to see what action (if any) Trump will
take. This calls for a unified response by entities such as NATO, particularly
as member states including Norway are involved.
Global levels of oil demand in the short term tend to be
highly inelastic, meaning that relatively modest shocks in available supply can
have a drastic impact on prices. With one-fifth of the world’s oil flowing
through the Strait of Hormuz, Iran believes that it can hold the word’s economy
to ransom and send oil prices skyrocketing.
This crisis has gone way beyond previous bouts of macho
posturing and saber-rattling between Tehran and Washington.
World leaders generally lack the stomach for decisive action in order to reestablish an effective containment strategy against Iran, but they may quickly discover that they have little choice when the alternatives are global economic meltdown or a prolonged and destructive regional war.