Harassment of tankers in the Hormuz and Gulf of Oman very rarely produce casualties. While they frustrate global trade and cause spikes in the logistical costs of international companies, the tension often recedes as quickly as the headlines. Primarily, this is due to a regional consensus to ensure any actions do not force an open conflict. This means that skirmishes and the flexing of political muscle is often tolerated within this context.
This time however, a drone strike on an Israeli owned tanker claimed the lives of a British citizen and injured a Romanian, while another tanker (the “Asphalt Princess”) was the subject of an attempted hijacking. The public nature of these incidents meant that Britain could not remain silent. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued a firm statement while the Chief of Staff of the British army blamed the absence of effective deterrents on the increasing provocations in the region.
Tehran has vehemently denied any involvement in harassing, hijacking, and targeting tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Nevertheless, there are three prospective scenarios over what transpired.
Scenario 1: Iran Did It
Iran’s proxies have been targeting US bases throughout the Biden presidency. While they have rarely caused casualties, the attacks have been seen as a show of Iranian power as it seeks to resist US pressure to make concessions it does not want to at the nuclear talks’ negotiating table. The attacks have also abated US clout in the region at a time when the Biden administration is keen to stress that military objectives have been achieved and a significant US military presence is no longer needed in the region.
The attacks have been seen as a show of Iranian power as it seeks to resist US pressure to make concessions it does not want to.
The Biden administration has accelerated the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan (which lies on the northern border of Iran) and has also announced the end of the combat mission in Iraq and its transition into an advisory role, much to the chagrin of his own military advisers.
Yet despite Biden’s “compromising” policies towards Iran, US regional allies are increasingly agitated and eager to spoil the momentum towards a framework of cooperation between Washington and Tehran. Israel has targeted Iranian facilities on Iranian soil, as well as Iranian positions in Syria. Although Saudi Arabia has launched a dialogue with Tehran, it is simultaneously lobbying Biden for a revision of his enthusiasm for a new nuclear deal and a consideration for its serious ramifications on regional security dynamics.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent his security advisers to Washington at the beginning of August in order to discuss Iran and pave the way for Bennett’s visit to Washington.
The tanker that was targeted by drone belongs to an Israeli billionaire and could well have been a retaliation on the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, against Israeli attacks on Iranian soil and overall antagonism on the part of Tel Aviv to scupper the US-Iran rapprochement.
Scenario 2: An Iranian Proxy Did It Without Informing Tehran
Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 by the Trump administration, there has been much debate about the efficacy of Tehran’s ability to impress its authority over its numerous proxies. It is no secret that many of the militias loyal to Iran in the region were enraged at Tehran’s lack of effective retaliation following the assassination of the powerful general. While Iran generally remains firmly in control, there have been sporadic incidents of militias separately targeting US positions in times of heightened tensions. It is not far-fetched that a militia loyal to Iran decided to go rogue and act individually in revenge for recent Israeli and US targeting of Iranian positions in Syria.
Scenario 3: A US Ally Has Staged It to Provoke Conflict
Israel has already conducted clandestine missions on Iranian soil targeting its energy facilities to provoke Tehran into lashing out in a way that might push the US into military action. Tel Aviv believes it is uncomfortably surrounded by Iran. To the north lies Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon. To the east lies Syria’s Assad, where Iranian militias now are free to roam the southern territories with Damascus incapable of reining them in. In Gaza, Hamas has openly lauded Tehran for its provision of weapons and technical support in using them against Israel. The potency of Iran’s military support for Hamas was on full display as the incessant rocket attacks launched from Gaza managed to breach the once-touted “invincible” Iron Dome.
Despite Tel Aviv’s protests, Biden has thrown himself headlong into the nuclear deal negotiations.
Despite Tel Aviv’s protests, Biden has thrown himself headlong into the nuclear deal negotiations. Rather than entertain Tel Aviv’s concerns, Biden instead seems annoyed at the presumption by Israeli policymakers that they can push back on what the US President believes could be a lasting foreign policy achievement. Netanyahu’s ouster by Bennett’s coalition is rumored to have been supported and facilitated by a US administration that took offense to Netanyahu’s one-sided, covert operations against Iran to thwart the negotiations.
Yet, although Netanyahu is out, Bennett shares the same reservations towards Iran. Israeli policymakers continue to lament Biden’s insistence on an engagement with Tehran, which they believe will come at their expense.
While this scenario is unlikely, it is too early to rule out the possibility of an orchestrated Israeli operation in order to provoke an open clash between Tehran and Washington.
While there is no definite evidence Iran is behind the attacks, it appears that they are the most likely culprits. Diplomatically, that is sufficient for the US and its allies to initiate measures to bring pressure to bear on Tehran.
Yet there is an acute frustration in Washington not only with Iran’s antics, but also at the efforts of regional allies to stymie what is an important foreign policy goal for Biden. The problem this time is compounded by the death of a British citizen. London cannot ignore it, while Biden cannot be seen to be dismissive of Britain’s legitimate outrage.
Biden does not want to jeopardize the negotiations over a new nuclear deal by alienating the Iranians.
At the same time, Biden does not want to jeopardize the negotiations over a new nuclear deal by alienating the Iranians, who have justifiable distrust over the sincerity of the US after Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the last agreement.
The challenge for Biden will be how to assuage the anger of its allies over the tanker incidents, while conveying to Tehran that it is business as usual with regards to the pursuit of a new nuclear deal and framework of cooperation. While war is very unlikely, a strong diplomatic statement with the threat of further sanctions is a possibility.
For what it is worth, Oman’s Foreign Minister was in Tehran at the time of the attacks on the tankers. And Omani diplomacy is probably in full swing as Muscat seeks to wield its unique position as a friendly ally of both parties to de-escalate tensions and spare the region a disastrous conflict that no one can win.