Saudi Arabia’s claim that two of its oil tankers have been sabotaged off the coast of the UAE is vague in detail – but could create a crisis that spins out of control and into military action.
Any attack on shipping in or close to the Strait of Hormuz, the 30-mile wide channel at the entrance to the Gulf, is always serious because it is the most important choke point for the international oil trade.
A significant armed action by the US or its allies against Iran would likely provoke Iranian retaliation in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region. Although the US is militarily superior to Iran by a wide margin, the Iranians as a last resort could fire rockets or otherwise attack Saudi and UAE oil facilities. Such apocalyptic events are unlikely – but powerful figures in Washington, such as the national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, appear prepared to take the risk of a war breaking out.
Bolton has long publicly demanded the overthrow of the Iranian government. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he said last year before taking office.
“The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
Bolton and Pompeo are reported to have used some mortar rounds landing near the US embassy in Baghdad in February as an excuse to get a reluctant Pentagon to prepare a list of military options against Iran. These would include missile and airstrikes, but it is unclear what these would achieve from the US point of view.
Paradoxically, the US and Saudi Arabia have been talking up war against Iran just as economic sanctions are seriously biting. Iranian oil exports have dropped from 2.8 to 1.3 million barrels a day over the last year and are likely to fall further. Inflation in Iran is at 40 per cent and promises by the EU, UK, France and Germany to enable the Islamic republic to avoid sanctions on its oil trade and banking have not been fulfilled. Commercial enterprises are too frightened of being targeted by the US treasury to risk breaching sanctions.
Iran is becoming economically – though not politically – isolated. This is in contrast to previous rounds of sanctions on Iran under President Obama prior to the nuclear deal when the reverse was true. One reason why it is unlikely that Iran would carry out sabotage attacks on Saudi oil tankers is that its strategy has been to play a long game and out-wait the Trump administration. Though the Iranian economy may be badly battered, it will probably be able to sustain the pressure. Much tighter sanctions against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 did not lead to the fall of his regime.
The circumstance of the alleged sabotage at 6am on Sunday remain mysterious. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih says the attack “didn’t lead to any casualties or oil-spill” but did cause damage to the structure of the vessels.
The incident has the potential to lead to conflict in the context of an escalating confrontation between the US and Iran. The rise in temperature reached particularly menacing levels this month as the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and Iran suspended in part its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew last year.
However, Iran has made serious efforts to show moderation and cultivate support from the EU, Russia and China. For this reason, it appears unlikely that it has had a hand in attacking the Saudi oil tankers. Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi asked for more information about what had really happened to the tankers. He warned against any “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism” by foreigners.
It is the unpredictability of US and Saudi foreign policy that has exacerbated the danger of military action – particularly when it comes to Iran. President Trump has accused the country of supporting “terrorism” and aggression in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia policy is even more mercurial ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took charge in 2015, initiating a war in Yemen, detaining the prime minister of Lebanon, locking up Saudi businessmen, and being accused by the US congress of being behind the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.
The crown prince has displayed extreme hostility towards Iran since he took power. Saudi Arabia executed 33 members of its Shia minority on 23 April, accusing 11 of them of being spies for Iran, an overwhelmingly Shia country. The defendants said they had been tortured into making false confessions and Human Rights Watch said that none of them had received a fair trial.
In this febrile atmosphere, almost any incident, true or false – such as the unconfirmed sabotage of tankers or a few mortar rounds fired towards the US embassy in Baghdad – might provide the spark to ignite a wider conflict.