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Burning Oil Tankers in the Strait of Hormuz - Has the Iran War Begun?

Burning Oil Tankers in the Strait of Hormuz - Has the Iran War Begun?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

A propaganda battle immediately followed the attacks led on the two Norwegian and Japanese tankers in the Sea of Oman on Thursday 13th of June. Washington broadcasted a video showing a supposedly Iranian crew approaching the hull of one of the ships, while Tehran reported on the alleged assistance provided by its navy to one of the tankers. Each of the two governments are of course accusing the other of having caused these serious events.

There is little doubt that these attacks, which ensue other incidents that occurred in early May, were perpetuated by the Guardians of the Islamic Republic. In the minds of Iranian decision-makers, they are in fact part of a larger scheme. Indeed, from the perspective of Tehran, the new American sanctions announced on the 8th of May and the very significant drop in Iranian crude oil sales, which add up to the previous inclusion of the Revolutionary Guards on the list of terrorist organizations on the 8th of April, and to the end of the exemptions from sanctions on the purchase of Iranian oil decided by the Trump administration on the 22nd of April, undoubtedly required a reaction.

One might consider this reaction to be well thought-out: among Iran's range of options - cyber-attacks, missile launches, use of "proxies" against Israel or the United States, targeting of the American forces stationed in the region - the advantage of adding obstacles to the movement of tankers in the Strait of Hormuz is twofold. On the one hand, this move demonstrates Iran's ability to disrupt the global oil market (one third of the world's oil supply passes through this strait) - although the barrel increase was limited and short-lived in the hours following the incidents of June 13th. On the other hand, these obstacles are not so important as to automatically provoke a strong military response from the United States, as would be the case, for example, if there were attacks on American forces. Ultimately, this might be a - final? - warning before a possible higher rise in tension.

Among Iran's range of option [...] the advantage of adding obstacles to the movement of tankers in the Strait of Hormuz is twofold.

Most experts believe that the "reformers" who hold the government - President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in particular - could not have approved such a move. It is worth remembering, however, that the speech delivered by Mr Rouhani on the 8th of May, in response to the American decisions, contained specific threats regarding the possibility for Iran to destabilize the region. Almost concurrently with the tanker incidents, new missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from the Houthis have somehow supported this reasoning.

Yet another reading of the tension in the Strait of Hormuz is possible. It is striking to note that one of the tankers targeted was Japanese, and precisely took place as the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr Abe, was visiting Tehran. This was the first visit by a Prime Minister of Japan in 40 years. It followed President Trump’s open endorsement, during his recent visit to the archipelago, of Mr Abe's willingness to play a mediating role between Tehran and Washington. A surprising divergence surfaced on that occasion - and was later confirmed - between the President of the United States and his advisors: Mr Trump had repeatedly reminded Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo that he wished to resume dialogue with Iran, to their great concern. He made it clear that his primary aim was not a regime change, but rather a better nuclear agreement.

There is reason to believe that any way out of the crisis with Iran requires direct negotiations at President Trump's level. Mr Abe's idea was probably to mediate discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani, and play a role similar to that of the South Korean President, who facilitated talks between the same Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. However, on the same day that the Japanese Prime Minister met with Iranian leaders, a Japanese ship was hit in the Strait of Hormuz, and the day after his meeting with the Supreme Leader, the latter stated that "Mr Trump is not someone with whom we can discuss". The disappointment is therefore brutal for Mr Abe, and the rebuff severe for Mr Trump. Last Thursday, the President of the United States was quick to tweet that, in the end, the conditions for reopening the dialogue were not met.

It is therefore tempting to interpret the incident in the Sea of Oman as a successful pre-emptive attack by the hardest wing of the Iranian regime against any attempt to resume negotiations between Washington and Tehran. The two readings - warning shot or pre-emptive attack - are in no way contradictory. Both signal the weakening of moderates in Iranian leadership circles.

It is difficult not to fear an increasingly dangerous showdown between "hardliners" from both sides: Washington and Tehran.

What can happen next? It is difficult not to fear an increasingly dangerous showdown between "hardliners" from both sides. Many parameters will however come into play. Three of them in particular deserve to be taken into account:

  • To what extent will American military resources increase? Contrary to what the Trump administration had bragged about, recent events show that the power of "deterrence" strategies in the Gulf has not been restored, especially against an Iranian opponent who has clearly developed asymmetric strategies. America's allies will press the United States to ensure freedom of movement in a thoroughfare that is vital to the energy supplies of many countries.
  • What measures will Tehran take on the 8th of July, when the 60-day ultimatum set in the speech delivered by President Rouhain on the 8th of May expires? A new step towards a gradual, probably initially ambiguous, exit from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) seems inevitable. The question of the attitude to be adopted by the other signatories - Russia, China, Europe - will once again be raised with great urgency. The Americans are eagerly awaiting a deadline that should enable them to strengthen Iran's isolation.
  • What are the chances of a return of diplomacy in the emerging context? This last question calls for a nuanced answer.

One of the effects of the incidents in the Sea of Oman could be to highlight a dilemma that lies at the heart of the American approach: if Washington is led to raise the bids in terms of military engagement, the Trump administration will quickly find itself in contradiction with its goal of withdrawing from the region (which corresponds to the American public’s expectations). We won’t push the paradox too far, but there is a third reading, according to which the rise in tensions in the Strait of Hormuz could also lead to the first steps towards a new negotiation. Some in the Trump administration are playing with the idea of carrying out, at a later stage of the escalation, selective strikes on Iranian installations similar to the strikes the Americans launched twice in Syria, following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The least we can say is that the demonstration in Syria has been inconclusive, and that in any case Iran has far more important strategic capabilities than the Damascus regime, which is barely managing to survive. 

For all these reasons, the Americans may overall need to clarify their strategy regarding Iran, by detailing their conception of an improved JCPOA. In these circumstances, and in order to prepare for a possible way out of the crisis, it would be very important that the states that are still in contact with Tehran be able to emphasize to Iranian decision-makers the dilemma the latter face. Indeed, possible successes in a tacit military confrontation with the United States (through "deniable" operations aligned with the Iranian strategic doctrine) will not solve their most fundamental problem, which is more of an economic and social matter, than a security one. In the coming weeks, the strangulation of the Iranian economy by the United States can only intensify - including because of the failure programed from Washington of the INSTEX instrument developed by the Europeans to safeguard certain exchanges with Iran.


Copyright : ISNA / AFP

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