We have truly entered that moment when an accidental, even unconscious mistake or miscalculation can set things on fire. And this time around, we are not speaking of the sharpening trade dispute between the US and China; nor the new porcine war between China and the UBS or Hong Kong’s government and its people; nor the collapse of political adulthood in Britain as it wrecks its relations with Europe; nor the US in its dispute with North Korea; nor even a still-simmering war/civil war on the fringes of Europe between Russia and Ukraine.
And, no, this time around, as important as it is, we’re not even going to be speaking about the startlingly rapid meltdown of the Greenland ice cap that may be sufficient to turn the South African Highveld into beachfront property, the destruction of much of the planet’s biodiversity, the rapid build-up of greenhouse gases, or the increasing pollution of the oceans and all the other global ecological disasters on the horizon. Every one of these has their champions as the fuse that will set things alight in our world.
This time around, we turn our attention to the increasingly incendiary mix in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and all the untidy overlaps in grievances and allegiances among the nations there — and their supporters further afield. This particular body of waterfronts on a whole set of nations who have not, historically, gotten along very well.
There they have a sharp religious cleavage between Shia and Sunni variants of Islam. There are the four (or five, if you count the Israelis in the mix) major squabbling ethnicities — Arab, Iranian, Kurd, and Turk — plus the deep engagement of the United States and Russia in a variety of ways. But what happens in the Persian Gulf now has the significant attention of Europe, China, Japan, India, and pretty much everywhere else where the daily Brent Crude price is a topic of more than just passing interest.
That, of course, is because something like a little less than a third of the world’s petroleum exports heads out to the world via that waterway. Crucially, at its narrowest point, it is only about 30km across — from a tiny, but a strategic spit of Omani territory across to the coast of southern Iran.
From either side, a modest pair of binoculars allows an observer to watch the constant stream of gigantic oil tankers and natural gas carriers entering the waterway to fill up and then leaving to go everywhere else in the world. That same observer would also see a flood of bulk cargo and other commercial freighters, carrying the globe’s production of everything from basic foodstuffs and epicurean delights, luxury Louis Vuitton handbags, and on to shipments of ultraluxury Porsches and Maseratis, as well as more utilitarian Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers into the markets of the oil-exporting states.
Since mid-May, four ships have been attacked, including two in this past week, as some exceedingly vivid video footage and still images have been broadcast and printed globally, with the imagery redolent of political thriller/action films like Syriana come to life. While none of the ships has been sunk, so far, that may not have been the purpose of whoever did this. Publicity and fear may have been more their style.
So far at least, these events seem different than the motives of the combatants in the Iran-Iraq “tanker war” of the 1980s — stopping exports of oil from the respective combatants, but mostly affecting Iranian shipping — that became a dangerous adjunct to their land-based war of attrition. For now, there is not even an authoritative agreement on what struck the ships this time around, although there is that grainy video clip released by the US military to support the claim of the crew of a smaller Iranian vessel removing a marine mine from the side of one of the ships that had been attacked last week.
One constant fear of the petroleum industry, energy and security analysts, military forces and governments is that somebody will sink several ships in the shipping channel such that nautical traffic grinds to a halt in and out of the Strait of Hormuz. (Companies might still be loath to restrict ship sailings if they could initially, but marine insurance companies would refuse to insure those increasingly risky sailings.) In such a case, the results would almost certainly become a mix of: Hello there, welcome to massive petrol rationing, electricity cuts in many places and a more general pummeling of the world’s industrial base — and then wave a further hello to the economic crash that follows.
At least at this point, the roster of possible — or even conceivable — culprits is confusing and confounding. That old standby of courtrooms and police thrillers — motive, means, and opportunity — must matter here in any effort to point towards the most likely culprit.
So start with the most obvious ones. The Iranian government has periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz — if the situation came to actual warfare with the US. However, this time, the latest incidents came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was actually in Iran, offering to mediate in the current crisis, even as one of the ships attacked was a Japanese-flagged one.
Still, the Iranian government has, so far, publicly played the injured party in this, insisting the US roll back its increasingly tough sanctions towards Iran and pressures on major European trading nations to stop trading with Iran. Most recently, Iran is threatening to ramp up production of radioactive materials beyond the limits of the Iran nuclear accord signed during Barack Obama’s presidency if the Trump administration does not reverse its present campaign of increased pressure.
It is important to note, however, that the Iranian civilian government has limited control over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, a powerful military all on its own, and that is a major holder of industrial and commercial resources in the country. Their ties are much more closely aligned to the current ayatollah and his influence, and his influential hierarchy is less than fully on board with the Rouhani government’s positions.
The Revolutionary Guard is also deeply involved in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars on the opposite side of the Americans and Saudis. This Revolutionary Guard has a whole flock of speedy patrol boats that could evade naval patrols.
On the other hand, there is a Saudi Arabian possibility. They are eager to give Iran a black eye, but it remains unclear their marine forces are capable of carrying out such raids, absent support by the US, even if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to cheer on the boxing-in of arch enemy, Iran. It is not clear, however, how the Saudis would benefit from a collapse in Gulf petroleum and natural gas shipping, given their own deep dependence on the flow of petrodollars for their ambitious development plans, also a key part of the prince’s plans.
Meanwhile, there are some who even try to argue the attacks could be laid at the feet of the Israelis. Now it is true they have a strong military relationship with the US and a growing tacit tie with the Saudis (an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of thing). Moreover, they have remonstrated repeatedly that they can neither tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, nor an Iran that evolves into the dominant Middle Eastern power, given its forces on the northern Israeli frontier at the Golan Heights.
But it is simultaneously difficult to imagine an Israeli operation at that distance, absent specific US backstopping and endorsement — just as it is hard to see what specific benefit derives from such an action, unless it was designed to provoke an actual, full-on US-Iran conflict. The outcomes and reverberations of such a conflict are hard to game out, and the consequences for the Israeli detente with many of the Gulf states (and their economies) would likely be dire if it ever became clear the Israelis did it.
As far as the US is concerned, the current policy clearly is intent on squeezing Iran as hard as possible through sanctions, tough and belligerent talk (speaking loudly but carrying a thin wand of a stick), pressuring third parties to eschew trade with Iran, and pressuring Iran to draw back from Syria and Yemen and to halt missile and any nuclear development. These are the goals — even if the US’s leaving the nuclear accord has actually made achieving these latter two goals even less likely than had been the case previously. Still, the US has maintained it is intent on supporting international maritime norms and rules, and thus any attacks on foreign third-party ships violate all of that.
But the US does clearly have sufficient military force in the immediate area to carry out an attack on Iran, if it chose to do so. But that would just as obviously put substantial US military and commercial installations in the area in the line of fire from irregular non-state actors eager to give the US a black eye, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on a surreptitious basis to provoke hostilities, or even by Iran itself, directly.
Nevertheless, such a scenario looks far too much like a recipe for limited general warfare, with entirely unpredictable results, and then even the possibility of Russian involvement should their own military positions in Syria become threatened.
In recent days, the US government — from the president down — have pointed to video footage to prove it was Iran who attacked the ships. Back in the early 1960s, when US President John Kennedy went on television to show charts and aerial photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, it was a rare person who declined to accept it as the truth (especially after the Soviet premier ’fessed up eventually).
But just a few years later, Lyndon Johnson called for congressional backing to step up US combat against the North Vietnamese in response to reported patrol boat attacks against US destroyers in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The almost innate credibility of American presidents began to crumble when the reality of those attacks became less and less clear as time went by. Further dissembling over the ground combat in succeeding years made it less and less likely a president’s word was a given fact.
Now, of course, the rhetorical veracity of Donald Trump’s public statements has reached an unprecedented nadir — some news media have units solely dedicated to recording and deconstructing the by-now thousands of false presidential narratives on matters — both consequential and inconsequential.
As a result, many in the world are pre-positioned to reject any Trumpian pronouncement over those Iranian ship attacks, even with a videotape on hand. (Sadly, this demonstration also had far too many echoes of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 speech at the UN on behalf of the casus belli of those largely mythic Iraqi weapons of mass destruction for the invasion of Iraq shortly thereafter.) Having Saudi Arabia announce they believe Trump’s explanation hardly helps matters, given their handling of the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside their consulate general in Istanbul.
At this point, it is impossible to predict whether there will be further ship attacks, let alone that if there should be, who would be responsible. Similarly, given the current Iranian-US, Iranian-Saudi, and even the Iranian-Israeli tensions, it is impossible to say what an end game to all of this would look like. Right now, the collision of Trumpian truculence and Iranian pride in the face of being pushed around does not seem to be heading in a positive direction.
But the global trade in oil products and the right to innocent free maritime passage should not be hostage to whoever has these ships in their sights — and the possibility such future attacks could provoke wider fighting. Accordingly, now is the time for neutral arbitrators to examine the attacks comprehensively and to issue a timely report, and, further, for all shipping nations to form the kind of patrols that have been successful in squelching piracy in the waters of the Arabian Sea off Somalia.
Conceivably, such a plan might spread some risk among many more nations in the act of enforcing it, but such an effort would also provide a much broader international basis for guarantees for the freedom of passage in a vital waterway.
But that would require everybody involved to take a deep breath, stop all the chest thumping, and then figure out how to behave like adults. DM