Editor’s Note: Nic Roberston is CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor
Iran would like the world to think that the attacks on two tankers off its Gulf coast are shrouded in uncertainty. “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what transpired this morning,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Javid Zarif in his first tweet following the brazen high-seas assault on civilian shipping.
The US thinks the matter is a lot clearer. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pinned the blame firmly on Iran, based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping” and more.
Later, US Central Command released a video that claims to show an Iranian navy boat removing an unexploded mine from the hull of the Japanese-owned chemical tanker Kokura Courageous.
Let’s just set aside both sides’ claims for a moment and apply some logic.
Iran has a history of using the Strait of Hormuz and the shipping lanes around it – the location of Thursday’s attack – for global leverage. In 2008, some Iranian officials pledged to impose controls on shipping in the strait if attacked. In late 2011 Iran again threatened to block the strait in retaliation for US and EU sanctions that targeted its oil revenue.
Now, with the US decision to pull out of the JCPOA, the multinational nuclear deal signed by Iran in 2015, Tehran again faces tightening sanctions, a crumbling economy, and a weakening of its ruling theocracy’s grip on power.
The Strait of Hormuz is Iran’s go-to place to get what it wants, and right now it wants to be out from under the yoke of crippling international sanctions.
Iran routinely resorts to threats in such circumstances – witness its recent warning that it will break out of the JCPOA in little over three weeks’ time. That, added to attacks on four commercial ships a month ago, triggered the spike in tensions that led to Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe meeting with Iran’s supreme leader.
Abe’s conciliatory effort included a letter from Trump – but Ali Khamenei rejected the overture, describing Trump as a person not “deserving to exchange messages with.” Just as Abe and Khamenei were meeting, the tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.
Zarif, ever the savvy diplomat, intended his tweet to play off global fears that Trump, or one of his regional allies, might be spoiling for a fight. After all, the world shuddered when Trump ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its battle group into the Persian Gulf last month.
Adding to international fears, Saudi Arabia has its own beef with Iran, blaming it for backing Houthi rebels in Yemen who periodically aim Iranian-made ballistic missiles at Saudi civilian airports. This week, a terminal building at Abha international airport was hit, injuring 26 civilians.
Regional diplomats are anxious, and with reason.
The desert Kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman instils fear in western partners, who see him as young, impulsive and responsible for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The questions on everyone’s lips a month ago, in the wake of the previous attacks on international shipping in the area, was this: Would a Trump-MBS alliance trigger a regional war, fueled by Trump’s craving for popularity and MBS’ desire to destroy Iran’s expansionist theocrats?
It was a reasonable concern: Four commercial ships were attacked at anchor as they waited to fill up with oil off the strategic Emirati port of Fujairah. Some suspected a dirty-tricks ploy to make Iran look bad and prompt the war everyone feared.
The UN concluded a “state actor” was likely responsible for the attack. Saudi and the US said that state was Iran, although didn’t provide any hard evidence. The UAE, Saudi’s principal ally, stayed silent.
In any war with Iran, the UAE’s slender coastal cities with their gleaming spires and fine palaces would be right on the front line. In short, they would have more to lose than their massive neighbor Saudi.
But in the end, neither Riyadh, its allies or the US had the appetite to strike Iran.
That at least adds some clarity – and there is more.
The attack on those four vessels a month ago didn’t happen in isolation. A few days later a strategic Saudi oil pipeline was targeted. Responsibility was claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi militia hundreds of miles away in Yemen.
Significantly both the port of Fujairah and the Saudi pipeline are bypasses to the Strait of Hormuz.
Just like Iran’s previous threats about controlling the Strait of Hormuz, the message was this: We can target all oil routes out of the region.
Thursday’s attack turned the volume up on that message, escalating tensions further – multiple explosions aboard ships on the move, fires breaking out, crew injured, everyone forced to evacuate.
Like the previous attack in Fujairah, Thursday’s incident was sophisticated and required capability and intent.
Iran has both – a track record of using global oil shipping lanes as a gambit to get global dialogue going, and a military force, the Revolutionary Guard, which has the skillset and hardware to pull off these types of attacks.
The problem for the US when it blames Iran for attacks like these is that the Trump administration is regarded with a degree of suspicion even by its allies. And that’s even more true for Saudi Arabia.
That shouldn’t make the most logical explanation any less logical – even if that means examining Zarif’s tweet through the prism of Iranian domestic affairs.
Zarif is not popular with hardliners, he recently quit before being reinstated, the country is divided and it is not illogical elements of the IRGC acted without Tehran’s blessing. Deeply suspicious would hardly cover that state of affairs.