Inaction in face of tanker attacks will have dire consequences
In July last year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said during a trip to Switzerland: “No oil in the region would be exported if we did not export our oil.” His comment was lauded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with the powerful military arm of the regime sending him a congratulatory message thanking him for his words. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, said he would personally be ready to implement this policy if possible. He added in his letter, published by the Islamic Republic News Agency: “I kiss your hand for expressing such wise and timely comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.” Iranian regime officials, whether as representatives of the government, the IRGC or members of the inner circle close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have made similar comments.
It has been suggested that Rouhani, who is viewed in Western political circles as a representative of the moderate faction in Iran and as someone who could be supported to weaken the regime’s hard-line revolutionary movement, is using such comments to force Washington to reconsider its decision to use sanctions to lower Iranian oil exports to zero.
More recently, last month, four oil tankers were targeted off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE. Shortly afterward, Yemeni Houthi militias affiliated with Iran’s regime targeted two Aramco oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. The subsequent investigative report published jointly by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway in New York asserted that it was highly likely that a state actor was behind the attacks on the tankers.
On June 4, the Iranian Parliament speaker’s special aide Hussein Amir Abdullahian wrote on Twitter: “If Saudi Arabia does not stop supporting the US-led economic war on Iran, it will receive a surprising Iranian response against it.”
Then, on the morning of June 13, two oil tankers were targeted in the Gulf of Oman near the Iranian coast. The tankers, both loaded with shipments of oil, were heading to Japan and Singapore. While some reports said that one of the tankers was owned by a Japanese firm, it was flying the flag of another country. As was the case with the Fujairah attacks, Iranian media outlets were the first to publish reports on the incident, preceding the global media. The terrorist attacks led to material losses and one crewman was also wounded.
Again, the fingers of blame are being pointed at the primary beneficiary of any impediment to the flow of energy supplies, namely Iran’s regime, with the attacks being consistent with its previous threats in this regard. The attack coincided with a visit to Tehran by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was aimed at easing the tensions between Washington and Tehran. Khamenei rejected this attempt at mediation, according to official statements published by the Iranian press.
In order to redirect the blame away from Iran, and in the regime’s usual effort to use the language of reason and rationalism to convince others, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted: “Reported attacks on Japan-related tankers occurred while PM @AbeShinzo was meeting with Ayatollah @khamenei_ir for extensive and friendly talks.”
The reactions to the attack varied. Some spoke of a third party being responsible, without naming it. Many countries condemned the attack, deeming it a dangerous escalation. Another group expressed concern about this escalation, voicing fears that the region could slide into dangerous territory and calling for restraint by all regional nations. Taking into consideration the different reactions, it is impossible that an Arab country could be behind such an attack. Blame could, similarly, not be attributed to the US or Europe. Washington has no interest in any such escalation. If the US had the desire to pursue military action against Iran, it would not seek mediation and launch an operation before knowing the results of the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Tehran. As for Israel, it launches military operations against Iranian elements in Syria on a weekly basis.
Divisions among the wings of the ruling elite in Iran have become increasingly and unequivocally clear.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Who, then, is this “third party?” The last possibility is one seeking to impede the Japanese mediation or any diplomatic solutions, which could come at the expense of its special interests. Here I am specifically referring to the IRGC. This wing within the Iranian regime has nothing to lose, having already been classified as a terrorist organization by Washington. Indeed, diplomatic solutions and the lifting of sanctions may be detrimental to its massive military, economic and security influence in Iran and beyond. Also, divisions among the wings of the ruling elite in Iran have become increasingly and unequivocally clear.
In regard to Zarif’s tweet, perhaps it is rational that the government could not have given the green light for such an operation to be executed. But the IRGC is not controlled by the government, nor does it submit reports to the leadership on its operations. Bashar Assad’s recent visit to Iran, which prompted Zarif to submit his resignation in protest at the fact he did not receive prior notification (although this was rejected by Khamenei), is a case in point.
The IRGC, unlike the government, is detached from the level where sensitive decisions are made and is far closer to Khamenei. The IRGC is an extremist entity, whose actions cannot be assessed or calculated in terms of reason and rationality. There is no contradiction between Zarif’s tweet and the IRGC’s behavior, with the agendas of the two sides diverging sharply.
The position of the group that calls for self-restraint and expresses concern is justified, given the simmering and volatile tensions in areas across the region. Any further escalation of these tensions is clearly undesirable. This group is, however, heedless of the grave dangers inherent in continuing this approach of appeasement, which will inevitably lead to more terrorist attacks being perpetrated, further tensions in the region, and a sharp increase in the possibility of similar operations being carried out.
The failure to attribute responsibility to the party most likely to be culpable for the attack, especially in light of the open threats by Iranian regime officials to block oil exports by other regional countries, is construed by Iran as an indication that the world is incapable of facing up to its hostile behavior. The failure to hold Iran responsible for the Fujairah incident has already led to another attack; therefore, stopping short of taking practical steps now will inevitably lead to other attacks taking place in the near future. If these countries are adopting this policy through fear that oil prices could reach $200 per barrel, the realities on the ground suggest that their passive diplomatic positions will not prevent these price surges, as they will not prevent a repeat of these terror attacks.
In conclusion, countering terrorism and rogue states, as well as their proxies, is a collective responsibility, with the dire consequences of an inactive position toward them being borne by the entire world. Even if countries are outside the region, their interests will be harmed, with the smallest damage resulting in a rise in energy prices and threats to international navigation. More seriously, these threats will be extremely detrimental to the global economy.
This is a shared responsibility. But will anyone pay attention to these alarm bells before it is too late?
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami