By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on June 13, hoping to ease tensions between Iran and the US. When Abe offered to convey an Iranian reply to a message from President Trump, Khamenei declined. Indeed, it appears that Khamenei’s reply at that exact moment was already being sent in the form of twin attacks against commercial tankers in the Gulf. A Norwegian-owned ship loaded with petrochemicals erupted into flames. The other targeted ship was carrying Japanese cargo (methanol) in transit to Singapore. Was this a calculated snub to Abe’s peace-making efforts?
Although US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials were quick to identify Iran as the likely culprit, it is right to allow a full investigation before definitively apportioning blame. However, experts agree that four previous attacks against oil tankers last month had Iranian fingerprints, and there is only one serious suspect in the frame.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to obstruct commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Just days ago, in a fire-breathing speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened US forces with “annihilation” and proclaimed that “the entire region will burn … a barrel of oil will be $200 or $300.”
Nasrallah’s prediction was uncannily accurate, with oil prices rocketing within minutes of the tanker attacks. Even Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s usually mild-mannered foreign minister, recently threatened that the US “cannot expect to stay safe.”
How, then, can these cheap mobsters feign outrage about fingers pointing at them when things start blowing up?
Tehran knows that its disintegrating economy cannot withstand a possible six more years of Trump. The regime appears to have concluded that offense is the best form of defense and is consequently moving toward a war-footing. Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, last month instructed proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen to prepare to target Western assets.
The Gulf of Oman attacks came the day after Iranian missiles hit a crowded arrivals hall at Abha airport, in Saudi Arabia’s southwest, causing dozens of casualties. The moderate climate of this attractive region makes it a favored summer destination for Saudi and Gulf holidaymakers. The airport was thus at its busiest. A Houthi spokesman claiming responsibility for the Abha strikes threatened to target all Saudi airports. Indeed, missiles were fired at Riyadh airport in 2017.
Such provocations are part of attempts to embroil Middle Eastern states in the conflict using Iran’s proxy armies across the region. The prospects for Iraqi stability would be bleak, indeed. There has been a recent spike in unrest in Qatif, and it is only a matter of time before Tehran stirs the pot again in Bahrain’s villages. How long before Israel joins the fray, bringing down hell and destruction on Lebanon and southwestern Syria?
Deterrence only works when it is shown to be serious. The US administration has played its hand badly, gaining a reputation for barking very loudly, but failing to bite. Khamenei was likely reassured by Trump plaintively declaring that he does not want conflict. Given that soaring oil prices could torpedo a teetering world economy, and with the US leader staking his 2020 reelection prospects on economic growth, the Gulf attacks seem calculated by Khamenei to hit Trump where it hurts. Furthermore, the attacks represent a blunt message to the world: “We can still hurt you.”
Maritime experts point out that it is impossible to fully protect civilian shipping. Hundreds of oil tankers and commercial ships are continually moving through the Hormuz chokepoint. The repeated nature of these attacks means that oil prices may remain elevated. Shipping and insurance costs could soar, with severe knock-on effects for the global economy, particularly since the afflicted companies have signaled that they will suspend Gulf operations and other corporations may follow. As was the case when Iran mined Gulf waters during the 1980s, there are also dangerous environmental consequences for fish stocks and complex ecosystems when huge tankers loaded with petroleum products are torpedoed.
Enough of Iran’s good-cop-bad-cop games: Seducing the Europeans with smiling, but impotent, Zarif and Rouhani, while Khamenei and Soleimani implement a strategy infinitely more aggressive than anything Khomeini ever dreamed up. Russia is urging negotiations to calm tensions, yet it was Moscow that opened a Pandora’s box by aiding Tehran’s expansion in Syria and elsewhere. What does Putin care that there were Russian nationals on the targeted ships?
This terrorist regime and its proxy figureheads have repeatedly and explicitly warned us that they intend to engulf the region in flames and torch the global economy. Why do we always fail to take Iran at its word? When tensions flared in May, European observers queued up to blame the Trump administration and portray this as a failure of US policy. These latest unprovoked attacks suggest that the escalation is fueled from one side only. World leaders must not sit back and wait to see what action (if any) Trump will take. This calls for a unified response by entities such as NATO, particularly as member states including Norway are involved.
Global levels of oil demand in the short term tend to be highly inelastic, meaning that relatively modest shocks in available supply can have a drastic impact on prices. With one-fifth of the world’s oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz, Iran believes that it can hold the word’s economy to ransom and send oil prices skyrocketing.
This crisis has gone way beyond previous bouts of macho posturing and saber-rattling between Tehran and Washington.
World leaders generally lack the stomach for decisive action in order to reestablish an effective containment strategy against Iran, but they may quickly discover that they have little choice when the alternatives are global economic meltdown or a prolonged and destructive regional war.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.