MARK ALMOND: Oil tanker attacks bring US-Iran tensions to a new level
The stakes could not be higher: MARK ALMOND says this week’s oil tanker attacks have brought the US-Iran tensions to a new incendiary level
The attacks on the Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman have brought the simmering tensions between the US and Iran to a new incendiary level.
Even before this week’s incident, President Donald Trump demonstrated his hostile approach by imposing heavy sanctions on Iranian oil exports and withdrawing from the conciliatory nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Now, Washington has directly blamed Tehran for the tanker explosions, backing up the claim with the release of video evidence which appears to show members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard handling what looks like an unexploded Iranian mine on the side of one of the damaged vessels.
Even before this week’s incident, President Donald Trump demonstrated his hostile approach by imposing heavy sanctions on Iranian oil exports
It should be acknowledged that Iran has ‘categorically’ denied any responsibility, arguing that the attacks were perpetrated by someone who wants to damage the country’s international reputation.
It certainly came at an awkward time for the Iranian government, which was hosting talks with the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose nation is dependent on Iranian oil imports.
On paper, it seems irrational that Iran would damage the interests of its own fragile economy with an assault on one of the biggest customers of its oil supply.
But economic rationality is not always paramount. And there are a number reasons why certain figures in the Iranian regime might actually welcome an escalating crisis with the US.
Inferno: A fire rages on board the oil tanker MT Front Altair after it was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, in what has been described as a torpedo attack
Smoke pours from the Norwegian-owned oil tanker on Thursday. For if war does break out, the US will find defeating Iran much more costly than Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime during the two Gulf campaigns
Outsiders tend to regard the Tehran government as a theocratic monolith, but in reality there is a division between the pragmatists, led by president Hassan Rouhani, and the fundamentalists who follow the head of state, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Growing in confidence, Iran’s hawkish hardliners contend that a more aggressive diplomatic policy would have a number of advantages.
A collision with America would serve as a distraction from Iran’s economic woes, which have left the country plagued by public discontent.
Posing as the patriot saviour in a national emergency, the hardliners could rally the people against the ‘Great Satan’ of the US, crack down on dissent and strengthen their grip on power.
According to this narrative, ruthlessness, not diplomacy, is the best way to force Washington to back down on sanctions.
And if things do escalate, the disturbing reality is that these Iranian hardliners certainly have the capability to wage war against the US.
For if war does break out, the US will find defeating Iran much more costly than Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime during the two Gulf campaigns.
In Washington, an anti-Iranian sentiment prevails, a legacy of the hostage crisis at the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, America’s anti-Iranian allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will be ramping up demands for action. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pictured above
A diagram showing the U.S. and Iranian forces in the region and the location of recent attacks on oil tankers and a Saudi oil pipeline, which have escalated Middle East tensions
Iran is three times the size of Iraq and the Revolutionary Guards which make up the special forces are well-equipped and battle-hardened. The Iranian military possesses an array of sophisticated armaments, including ballistic missiles.
But even low-tech equipment could cause severe damage to the US if it came to war in the Gulf.
If only one Iranian torpedo boat from a swarm of 40 or 50 managed to break through the US defensive screen, it could still sink or cripple an American ship. And it would only need a few drones to reach a target for the results to be devastating.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely the US will back down. Given its colossal military power, it is rightly still regarded as the world’s military guardian.
In Washington, an anti-Iranian sentiment prevails, a legacy of the hostage crisis at the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, America’s anti-Iranian allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will be ramping up demands for action.
Britain will be left in an awkward position if conflict does erupt. It is unlikely that the UK will have any direct military involvement, but diplomatically – as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said yesterday – it would be unthinkable if Britain did not support the US.
If that does happen, British expats and commercial interests in the Gulf would be in a vulnerable situation. And in Britain itself, our stuttering economy – like the rest of the western world – would be severely hit by an oil crisis arising from a war.
It came as no surprise that, following the tanker attacks, oil prices in global markets became extremely volatile. After all, 30 per cent of the world’s crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz which borders Iran.
In this combustible situation, the stakes could not be higher. We can only hope that a mood of restraint and common sense will ultimately prevail.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford
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