As the plumes rise from a brazen attack in the Gulf of Oman, oil brokers and diplomats are panicking about another lurch toward confrontation In the Middle East.
What happened is fairly clear – two tankers were struck as they sailed through this busy and strategic shipping lane – but why it happened and who did it is a lot less easy to explain, not least because it doesn’t appear to benefit any of the protagonists in the region.
The Japanese-owned Kokuka Corageous tanker briefly caught fire when it was twice attacked with “some kind of shell,” its owner said. One of its 21-strong Filipino crew was injured.
The crew of the Bermuda-based Front Altair all escaped unharmed when it too was hit by a blast. The US Fifth Fleet’s destroyer USS Bainbridge was nearby and responded to a distress call received at 6:12 a.m. local time and then another 48 minutes later. It picked up 21 sailors from the Kokuka and is getting a wider view of the scene from a P-8 Navy surveillance aircraft.
With the rescue operation over, questions have turned to why anyone would do this. That’s not as not as straightforward to answer as it looks.
Inevitably, similarities have been drawn between Thursday’s attacks and events a month ago, when four ships were targeted near the Emirati port of Furajah. For that, officials in Washington and beyond pointed the finger at Iran.
But Thursday’s incident is significantly more blatant. Yet the same officials will doubtless blame Tehran again. If and when that happens, we should remember US national security advisor John Bolton promised to present evidence to the UN Security Council backing up those previous claims, but has yet to do so.
Who stands to gain?
The Russians like to ask: “Who did it benefit?” when the unexpected strikes, and this question is useful now.
Iran doesn’t appear to have a lot to gain. Say what you like about Tehran’s malicious intent, these incidents heighten the global drumbeat for greater isolation and boosts those who seek to apply military pressure on Iran. Its economy is in a bad condition. Before President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA (colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal), Tehran was at its peak of regional influence. With diminished economic resources, its potency is likely to wane.
The incidents also came in the middle of a visit to Tehran by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, apparently trying to mediate over the nuclear deal (although Tokyo says he’s not an envoy for Washington). The apparent attacks eclipsed the Abe visit, an unexpected bit of outreach to Iran by someone Trump calls a friend.
You could make a case for Iranian hardliners staging such an attack to derail peace efforts. But Iran’s hardliners – particularly the Revolutionary Guard – are normally a little smarter than to bomb international shipping lanes during a crucial diplomatic meeting. Iran’s chief moderate, Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, was right to point out that “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.” When one party is so easily blamed, it is likely blameless, or unfathomably stupid.
What else? Reuters has reported that Tehran has been scaling up its remaining petrochemical exports ahead of tightening sanctions. Could it be looking to boost the price of oil? Maybe. But at the same time, the shipping of that same oil is going to be disrupted, so they would likely lose out all the same. It is hard to imagine an Iranian hardliner smart enough to pull this sort of apparent attack off, without also realizing they would get immediately collared.
So what about the conspiracy theory, that Saudi Arabia also seeks confrontation and higher oil prices, and would therefore permit such an attack to further its own agenda? An equally obvious explanation, it’s tough sell, too. And were such a plot uncovered, the damage to Saudi Arabia’s already beleaguered reputation in the Beltway could be terminal.
Some 20% of the world’s oil goes through the Strait of Hormuz, and that includes a lot of Saudi exports. You might argue that at $62 a barrel (the price of Brent crude after Thursday’s incidents caused a 3% spike), oil is quite cheap and can take more of a knocking. But in the long term it’s unlikely the Saudis would want the Gulf’s shipping lanes to be regarded as unsafe.
If this gets worse and the US military finds itself dragged into protecting shipping in Hormuz, Riyadh’s relationship the Trump administration – which sought to get out of foreign entanglements rather than get into them – would be tested.
There are few easy facts here, as there are few easy culprits. But the sense of uncertainty stokes rather than dampens the fears of mismanagement and conflict.