If Iran was behind the oil tanker attack, that is serious. What happens next depends on who has most to lose between Tehran and the US
The growing confrontation in the Gulf between the US and its Saudi-led allies on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other is now focused on the spate of recent mine attacks on oil tankers, which have been blamed by the US on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This is a standoff that has been coming. It is incontestable that Iran has been guilty of destabilising overreach in the Middle East in recent years, as it has moved to build a crescent of Shia influence from Damascus to Baghdad and Lebanon to Yemen.
But Iran’s actions can hardly be said to have occurred in a vacuum. As the Iran analyst for Crisis Group Ali Vaez recently argued, it has been the recent policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran under the incoherent foreign policy of the Trump administration that has exacerbated the current tensions. In short order, the Trump administration has withdrawn unilaterally from the internationally agreed – and successful – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, whose purpose was to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for verifiable limits on the country’s nuclear programme.
In April, Washington designated one of the country’s most significant (if troubling) security institutions – the politically influential Revolutionary Guards – a terrorist organisation. It also introduced new economic sanctions that have further stressed Iran’s badly frayed economy.
In tandem with the US moves, Saudi Arabia – one of the countries seen as pushing US policy – has increased its oil production to sell to former buyers of Iranian oil, while at the same time vocally supporting moves to strangle Iranian exports.
It is not hard, then, to see how these moves might be viewed in Tehran: as part of an escalating offensive from multiple sources threatening its own home front in a campaign of economic warfare designed to weaken the regime. The US national security adviser, John Bolton, has been an advocate of regime change in Iran in the past.
As Vaez made clear, writing in April even before the first of the oil tanker sabotage attacks, such direct challenges were unlikely to go unanswered.
Perhaps presciently, Vaez cited a public warning from one of the advisers to Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds force, suggesting that Saudi and Emirati oil shipments to Europe through the Bab al-Mandab strait and the Red Sea could be disrupted as part of Iran’s response.
All of which suggests that far from being the work of an irrational actor on the world stage, the recent attacks on the oil tankers are entirely explicable: a calculated demonstration of the vulnerability of the flow of oil to the world’s biggest economies, including to the EU, India and China.
So should the attacks be interpreted as a sign of Iran’s desperation, or as evidence that Tehran has internalised the idea that it is dealing with a weak US administration with little international support for its policies in the Gulf, and is gaming its response accordingly?
If the answer is the latter, then that is a judgment which has been encouraged by the wildly inconsistent messaging from Trump himself. The US president has appeared to threaten conflict and then just as quickly rule it out.
The tanker attacks – if proved to be the work of Iran – are serious. But they would not represent the most potent move available to Tehran in this standoff. That remains the prospect of the country restarting uranium enrichment beyond the limits agreed in the JCPOA, a move it has already threatened, and which would inevitably trigger an international crisis in which the US would be only one actor and Europe would inevitably become embroiled.
Clues as to where the crisis goes from here might be found in asking who has most to lose. For Iran’s leadership, for which the survival of the clerical regime is an existential priority that looms above all others, capitulation on US-Saudi terms would not appear to be an option.
The depth of the US stake in this increasingly dangerous game is far harder to judge, given the usual confusion of Trump’s flip-flopping and the machinations of Bolton, who may be freelancing his own agenda.
All of which leaves us to contemplate the most frightening element of all in a complex crisis: that the current occupant of the White House lacks any of the skills required to successfully defuse it.
• Peter Beaumont is a senior reporter on the Guardian’s global development desk