by Willy B
So who was really responsible for the attacks, yesterday morning, on the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman? Was they really the result of Iran lashing out in a frustrated response to U.S. sanctions, as both Israel and the US are claiming? Or were they perpetrated by parties who would like to see the US and Iran at war, as a couple of commentators I've seen has suggested?
Late last night, US Central Command sent out a statement, with an account claiming that an IRGC boat had arrived to remove an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of the Kokuka Courageous. The statement included an attached video purporting to show the removal of the mine by crew members of the boat. The video is of such poor quality, however, that it's impossible to tell what's really going on, where the boat came from and who's on board.
This morning, however, the ship operator of the Kokuka Courageous was telling a different story. Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo Co, said during a press conference in Tokyo that at the time of the second attack on the ship (there were two reported attacks, the first one damaged the engine room and the second forced the crew to evacuate) the crew saw flying objects which he believes could be bullets (RPG’s maybe?), and denied possibility of mines or torpedoes because the damages were above the ship's waterline. He called reports of mine attack "false." The crew is aboard the destroyer USS Bainbridge, so presumably they told the same story to the US Navy.
Last night’s Centcom statement followed statements by Mike Pompeo, yesterday, in which he said the U.S. assessment of Iran's involvement was based in part on intelligence as well as the expertise needed for the operation and also on Iran's alleged responsibility for the Fujairah attacks. "Taken as a whole these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran," Pompeo said. He provided no evidence, gave no specifics about any plans and took no questions.
Pompeo noted that Abe had asked Iran to enter into talks with Washington but Tehran "rejected" the overture. "The supreme leader's government then insulted Japan by attacking a Japanese-owned oil tanker [this is a reference to the Kokua Courageous] just outside Iranian waters, threatening the lives of the entire crew, creating a maritime emergency," Pompeo claimed.
As for what the US might do about it, the New York Times reports that yesterday morning, after the news of the attack began to break, there was a previously scheduled meeting in "the Tank" at the Pentagon, involving Shanahan, Dunford and other top officials to discuss threats in the Middle East and US troop levels. The Times reports that weeks prior Centcom chief Gen. McKenzie had actually asked for 20,000 troops but that Dunford expressed the fear that if that many were ordered to the Gulf, it would be provocative "and perhaps a sign that, despite denials, the Trump administration’s real goal was regime change." Prior to yesterday's meeting Shanahan and Dunford were ready to make the case that Mr. Trump had told the Pentagon to reduce American forces and United States involvement in the current wars in the Middle East, and avoid direct confrontation with Iran, one senior administration official told the Times, However, the policy choices advocated by Pompeo and Bolton are having the opposite effect, the official said.
Trump himself, during an appearance on Fox & Friends this morning, blamed Iran. “Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat,” he said, obviously referring to the Centcom video. Trump said the mine had “Iran written all over it.” But he said that Iran had been damaged since he took office, but was still a threat. "They're a nation of terror and they've changed a lot since I've been president, I can tell you."
The British government, despite its posturing in support of the JCPOA, is fully onboard with the US explanation for the attacks as provided by Pompeo, yesterday. “This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension. I have been in contact with (U.S. Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our U.S. allies,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement issued late yesterday. “We are taking this extremely seriously and my message to Iran is that if they have been involved it is a deeply unwise escalation which poses a real danger to the prospects of peace and stability in the region,” he added.
But there’s reason to doubt, at least according to two presumably well informed commentators, that Iran would benefit from such attacks, especially when they’re engaged in intense diplomacy to try to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive with its remaining signatories while at the same time, working to prevent a US attack.
Julian Lee, an oil analyst who writes for Bloomberg argues that Iran really has little to gain from such attacks. The potential benefits to Iran "are outweighed by the risks," Lee writes. "And even if Tehran isn’t responsible, it will still suffer the consequences." Regarding potential gains, he writes: "If Tehran is attacking tankers leaving the Persian Gulf – either directly, or through proxies – it sends a message that transit through the world's most important choke point for global oil flows is not safe without its consent. If Iran is pushed to the brink economically by sanctions, it will not go quietly. Other nations in the region will bear the cost of disruptions to their own oil exports, while America and its allies will have to cope with higher crude prices and disruptions to supplies."
But. "There is another group that will benefit from the incident – the people who want to see the U.S. step up its campaign against Iran and move from an economic war to a military one," Lee continues. "There are plenty of those, both in the U.S. and among its allies in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East regions."
Lee also notes the timing, with Abe in Tehran, Iran having just released a U.S. resident from espionage charges and so forth. "This would seem very clumsy timing from a country seeing the first tangible signs of any easing of the crippling sanctions imposed by the Americans. But it is absolutely understandable if you’re someone whose ultimate goal is to derail any easing of tensions between the two nations, and to effect regime change in Tehran," he concludes. "Whoever is behind the attacks is no friend of Iran."
The second commentary comes from what some might call an unlikely source, the Israeli Ha’aretz daily. Military analyst Zvi Bar'el raises the question of who benefits and he doesn't see that Iran would benefit by escalating the crisis with the US in this way. "In all previous attacks in the Gulf in recent weeks Iran was naturally taken to be the immediate suspect. After all, Iran had threatened that if it could now sell its oil in the Gulf, other countries would not be able to ship oil through it; Tehran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, and in any case it's in the sights of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel," Bar'el writes. "But this explanation is too easy. The Iranian regime is in the thrones of a major diplomatic struggle to persuade Europe and its allies, Russia and China, not to take the path of pulling out of the 2015 nuclear agreement. At the same time, Iran is sure that the United States is only looking for an excuse to attack it. Any violent initiative on Tehran's part could only make things worse and bring it close to a military conflict, which it must avoid."
The implied question, it seems to me, is why would Iran sabotage it's own diplomacy in this way? The IRGC is responsible to the Supreme Leader who is meeting with the Japanese prime minister when it attacks a ship operating by a Japanese shipping company? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, nor does it to Bar’el. "It seems that alongside its diplomatic efforts, Iran prefers to threaten to harm the nuclear deal itself, responding to Washington with the same token, rather than escalate the situation to a military clash," he writes. Bar'el points his finger at the Houthis whose attacks on the Saudis in retaliation for the ongoing Saudi bombing campaign are clearly becoming more sophisticated but the military effects of which seem to be far more psychological than kinetic, especially when compared to Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
But really, if the Iranians were behind it (and Bar'el hints that there's no reliable intelligence yet identifying the attackers) it opens up a whole can of worms regarding how to respond. A retaliatory US attack on an Iranian military installation would lead to an Iranian response and the resulting tit-for-tat actions could suck the whole region into a war. "If sporadic, small-scale attacks raise such complex dilemmas, one can perhaps dream of an all-out war with Iran, but it is enough to look at the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan to grow extremely cautious of the trajectory in which such dreams become a nightmare that lasts for decades," Bar'el concludes.