The explosions, on a vital passageway for the world’s oil supply, may prove Trump’s policy of coercion has backfired
The explosions were bigger and the damage more extensive. But the message and its means of delivery have some similarities, The Guardian reports.
Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman caused jitters in global markets and unease across a region that has been bracing for conflict throughout much of the year. As with the earlier attacks on 12 May, news of the latest strikes was again broken by media outlets aligned to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, who broadcast images of the attacks within minutes of them taking place.
Pictures of both ships ablaze spoke volumes about what is at stake in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, as a regional player withering under ever tightening sanctions stares down a global superpower determined to impose its will.
Even the hint of obstruction in the strait of Hormuz, where ships pass each other like cars on a four lane motorway, is enough to upset oil markets. Frequent, and seemingly random, bombings of tankers, however, takes fears over energy security to levels not seen since the tanker wars, a byproduct of the Iran-Iraq war of the mid-80s, which sunk or damaged 543 ships in nearby waters and caused three years of turmoil in energy markets. By Thursday afternoon, two large shipping companies had suspended bookings from the Gulf oil ports.
The standoff between Iran and the US, which has brewed over the course of Donald Trump’s administration, has typically played out on terra firma. In Iraq, Iran has consolidated its presence at the expense of Washington, which has little to show for its efforts to reorientate the country in its favour. In Lebanon Iran’s near dominance of the political space has taken place at Saudi Arabia’s – and Washington’s – expense.
On seas and oceans US interests – and those of its allies – are even more vulnerable, with tankers carrying nearly one third of the world’s oil, or derivatives of it, passing within a few miles of the Iranian coastline as they travel from the strait of Hormuz to all points of the industrialised world.
As US sanctions have taken hold, Iran has increasingly struggled to secure revenues from oil exports that use the same seaborne lanes. Iranian leaders have made no bones about how important the Gulf waters are to the country’s economy – and to the coffers of its foes. As was the case in May, the new attacks targeted ships carrying cargo from Saudi and Emirati ports.
In February, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s national security council, threatened the closure of the strait, if its oil exports were threatened. “There are multiple ways to make that happen,” he said. “We hope we would not be forced to use them.”
Iran strenuously denied involvement in the May attacks and, in remarks on Thursday, appeared to be following suit. Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, described the attacks as “beyond suspicious” and Iranian media suggested an attack on a Japanese-owned tanker taking place at the same time Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei pointed to a plot.
Iran views Trump with contempt, but on balance believes the economic warlaunched by his administration, and military threats, are designed not to start a bombing war, but to shore up a negotiating position, vis-a-vis a bid to redraw the nuclear deal that was signed by his predecessor, and torn up by Trump last year.
Khamenei is known to be vigorously opposed to any new talks, particularly from a perceived position of weakness, and has told subordinates to carefully calibrate any response to US moves, which he believes aim to wind back its regional gains since the US-led ousting of Saddam Hussein and bring his regime to heel.
If, as US officials were already suggesting on Thursday, the latest attacks can be traced to Iran, the will of both sides faces a searching test in the coming days and weeks. Washington is currently all in on a confrontational approach that combines a comprehensive economic squeeze with military muscle. Iran, meanwhile, remains defiant, while engaging in calibrated prods to remind foes of its reach.
Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst and Iran project director for the International Crisis Group, observed: “If Iran is behind these attacks, it clearly shows that a US policy relying solely on coercion can backfire. Diplomatic efforts by allies are necessary to dial down the tension, but they can’t resolve it as long as Washington relies on an all-or-nothing approach.”