BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
There is a famous scene in the otherwise turgid Godfather threequel in which the aging Al Pacino, who is trying to “go legitimate” in that film exclaims, “Every time I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in!” And that’s precisely how most Americans should feel about the recent news surrounding potential Iranian actions directed against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, one tanker belonging to Japan and the other to Norway.
At the very time that the Trump Administration has indicated its desire to pull back from the morass of Mideast politics and to focus both on “nation-building” at home as well as to better resisting the China threat (our only true threat today), the Iranians continue poking Washington’s eye.
This is the second incident in the last month in which oil tankers have been damaged by suspected Iranian attack. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Iran and, as a result, the global price of oil has risen by approximately four percent.
A Timeline of Escalation
On June 6, 2019, the United States issued an official report to the United Nations on the series of attacks made against Saudi-flagged tankers on May 12, 2019. Their conclusion was that the damage the Saudi tankers incurred (below-decks, which comport with limpet sea mines) was the result of actions taken by a “state actor” with “significant operational capability” (read, Iran). Shortly after this assessment, news broke that a major fire had–apparently–spontaneously erupted at the strategic port Shahid Rajaee, just north of the Strait of Hormuz.
According to the Iranian Republic News Agency:
On June 7, 2019, four merchant ships caught fire in the port of Nakhl Taqi (Taghi) in the Asaluyeh region of Bushehr Province. Three ships were burned entirely, while two others in Asaluyeh suffered major damage. While the governor of Asaluyeh claimed the fires were extinguished without anyone harmed, the head of the emergency rooms in Bushehr Province said that several civilians and sailors had been injured and brought to hospitals in the region. The mayor of the town of Delvar, near the port of Bualhir, confirmed that one vessel in the port burned completely.
The Iranian ships in question that were set ablaze in Iran were large cargo dhows. The term “dhow” is a generic name used to identify various sizes of cargo transports in the Greater Middle East. In this case, the six Iranian ships that were mysteriously set on fire were large cargo vessels similar to the type of Saudi-flagged tankers that were attacked (presumably by Iran) in May.
The recent attack on the Japanese and Norwegian-flagged tankers in the Gulf of Oman is bizarre, as it comes on the heels of the hawkish U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that he was willing to meet with the leadership of Iran “without preconditions” in Switzerland–and that Switzerland, in their usual modus operandi, was likely acting as an intermediary.
Meanwhile, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has become the first Japanese leader to visit Iran since the Islamic revolution took hold there in 1979. His explicit mission was to attempt to ameliorate the rising tensions between the United States and Iran. The recent attack on Japanese and Norwegian-flagged vessels is occurring as these new iterations of potential peace talks are attempted.
For their part, the Iranians have in the last several months upped their own hostile rhetoric against the United States (as Washington has also intensified its bellicose talk toward Tehran). It would appear as though both the United States and Iran have indeed been in a period of escalation–each side matching the other at every turn. In fact, shortly after the Trump Administration labeled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist organization” (which, of course, it very well is!) Tehran responded in-kind labeling the entire United States military as a “terrorist” organization.
Shortly thereafter, the Trump Administration insinuated that the Iranians were caught loading missiles onto boats that it feared would be used to attack ships traversing through the Strait of Hormuz and other tightly crowded strategic waterways–known as transit chokepoints, such as the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb as well as the Gulf of Oman, apparently. Thus, Washington ordered the dispatch of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group from its dock in Norfolk, Virginia into the region accompanied by B-52 bombers.
Of course, as I noted elsewhere, the movement of the carrier strike group was authorized a month before it set sail and there is grave disagreement among the U.S. intelligence community as to whether or not the Iranians were planning to use those missiles they were loading on to cargo ships to attack U.S. and other ships in these strategic waterways or if they were merely transporting those missiles to battlefields elsewhere in the region (such as Syria or Yemen).
Nonetheless, Washington decided to engage in a de facto escalation.
This, then, prompted the attacks on the Saudi cargo ships on May 12 and also encouraged Iranian leaders to burble that they were planning to pull out of the near-dead Obama era Joint Comprehensive Plane of Action (JCPOA). Although, many speculated that this move was a bluff intended to encourage the other signatories to the agreement–who very badly want the JCPOA to remain on the books–such as Europe, Russia, China, and Japan to rush to Iran’s side and help them mitigate the caustic impacts that the U.S. sanctions are having on the Iranian economy.
Given that President Donald Trump has intimated his disdain for the escalation that his national security team–as led by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–has engaged in with Iran, and the fact that Pompeo himself has indicated a willingness to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions, it does seem odd that Iran would choose now to escalate. But, floating the potential for talks is no substitute for actual talks.
And, there is a dearth of trust between Washington and Tehran–to the point that no official communication exists between the two states, making the potential for gross miscalculation higher than usual (during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow had the famous “Red Phone” intended to allow for the leaders of both sides to have direct talks during a conflict that would de-escalate any situation).
There is some chance that the current appearance of confusion as to strategic intentions among the leaders of the Trump Administration is nothing more than ruse meant to confuse and frighten Iran’s blinkered leadership–all as a means of effecting a true agreement between the two sides (since the Obama-era JCPOA was nothing more than generous giveaway to the mullahs of Iran).
Yet, one cannot help but to wonder if the president’s hawkish national security aides (most of whom were proud neoconservatives until recently, when it became clear that the president and his nationalist-populist movement was not going away any time soon) simply got too far ahead of Trump on their agreed-upon strategy of standing firm against Iranian aggression.
This Is Probably Not a “False Flag”
What’s more, given the level of vituperation that exists between the Sunni Arab states (namely Saudi Arabia) as well as Israel with Iran, one cannot help but to speculate if the recent attacks against Japanese and Norwegian-flagged tankers in the Gulf of Oman was done by elements belonging to the Armed Forces of America’s allies in the region–who very badly want the United States to fight Iran on their behalf.
There is no proof that this is the case, but it seems strange that one of the targets of the recent tanker attack was a Japanese-flagged ship on the heels of Shinzo Abe’s mission of peace to Iran. Also, the attack Gulf of Oman attack was clearly an in-kind response to the attack perpetrated upon the six Iranian dhows in the strategic port of Shahid Rajaee.
Until further evidence is provided for these theories, though, it would behoove readers to assume that a) the recent spate of events between the United States and Iran are occurring within the framework of a shadow war between the two states and, b) that Iran really is crazy (and desperate) enough to risk greater attack from the United States. And, c) that the shadow war will continue along its escalatory path eventuating in conflict of some kind.
Iran is a Competent Foe
After all, the activities against shipping in these strategic waters is completely within the historical behavior of Iran. Plus, Iran is ethnically Persian and religiously Shiite Muslim. In essence, they are a minority in the region and they have a long history of not only regional dominance, but also a history of successful aggression. It is easy for the uninitiated to view the Iranians in the same light as the decrepit and absurdly incompetent Arab armies of the region.
In his new work, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness, Kenneth Pollack describes the absolute disaster that constituted the post-World War II Arab armies. These militaries were riven by sectional disunity and clan-based animosities; they were constantly undercut by their own autocratic leaders (who were more in fear of a military coup than external foes); and their martial prowess was never quite that good. As Walter Soubchak in “The Big Lebowski” said of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army: they’re, “A bunch of fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse in a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy adversary.”
This is not so with the Iranians. Here is a group of people who have consistently demonstrated a resolve against Western pressure; they’ve assiduously worked to expand their reach and power beyond their borders and have effectively undermined–even in some cases usurped–America’s once-dominant position in the region. And, this is a group of people who managed to kill more than 200 U.S. Marines in the horrific suicide bombing attack of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983–an attack which resulted in the Reagan Administration effectively withdrawing from the region with America’s proverbial tail tucked between its legs (not that the alternative was any better).
So, yes, the probability that Iran is more than willing to engage in behavior that many Westerners may view as insane or unhealthy makes perfect sense. This is especially true considering that so much Iranian aggression has gone unanswered over the years. The regime, with its own history of ideological certitude, is not one that will back down so easily from the threat of counterattack. And, the one time in recent memory that it appeared willing to engage in true diplomacy, shortly after former President George W. Bush invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein in record time, the former “cowboy president” ignored Tehran’s overtures. Since then, America’s position in the region has weakened relative to Iran’s.
We mustn’t also forget that Qatar is nominally aligned with Iran and Qatari money is flowing into the coffers of certain Western media outlets and pundits who are, on both the Left and the Right, viscerally opposed to harsher stands against perceived Iranian aggression. The idea that what we may be experiencing is somehow a false flag operation is, quite possibly, the result of pro-Iranian chicanery in the Western press.
Shadow Wars: The New Hot Commodity
Remember, during the conflict with Iraq in the 1980s, as the Iran-Iraq War quickly became one of the largest conflicts in 20th century history, both Iraq and Iran engaged in a tit-for-tat war of escalation against each other’s shipping interests passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
Writing for Proceedings in 1987, Ronald O’Rourke described Iranian behavior in the Tanker War of that era as such:
Iran’s attacks in 1987, as in previous years, were generally interpreted as tit-for-tat responses to Iraqi attacks, though the heavy pace of attacks at times made the pattern difficult to discern. In general, Iran continued its pattern of exercising substantial care in positively identifying most of its targets before firing on them. In January 1988, however, there were two embarrassing incidents in which Iranian forces, apparently seaborne Iranian Revolutionary Guards, attacked ships serving Iranian ports. For some, the two mistaken attacks highlighted a division between the personnel of the regular Iranian Navy, which are generally deemed to be professionals under the effective controlof the central government in Tehran, and the Revolutionary Guards, who are seen as less predictable and not always under complete central-government control.
This prompted the United States and Soviet navies to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) meant to keep the vital oil chokepoint open to international transit as well as to keep the two powers at bay. Ultimately, after a U.S. warship was severely damaged by an Iranian mine in the Strait, the United States responded with furious resolve–effectively destroying the Iranian navy at the time.
Something similar is set to occur between the United States and Iran. Still, one cannot help but to wonder why it is necessary for the United States to wage this war. The president has clearly indicated his desire to engage in a containment strategy with Iran. He has sought to build up the capacities of both the Sunni Arab states (namely, Saudi Arabia) as well as Israel.
Yet, the creation of a quasi-NATO for the Mideast appears to be more complicated of an undertaking than originally though. Despite the complexity of the matter, though, the administration has made great strides thanks to its vital support for the unpopular Saudi regime and its unwavering commitment to Israeli sovereignty.
Plus, as Iran’s population rises to decry their terrible economic lot in life–and as Iran’s population drastically implodes, as David P. Goldman has brilliantly documented–a containment strategy based on deterrence and a regional multilateral security alliance seems to be the best option. We will have effectively waited out the Iranian regime, as we did the Soviet one, and make those closest to threat bear the brunt of the burdens.
This is precisely what is occurring today. Tanker War 2.0 is here. We are continually told by the administration that they are not seeking war. The Iranians claim the exact same thing. But, their actions indicate otherwise. In his magnificent new book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, Sean McFate makes the case that we are living in an age where shadow conflict, what Thomas J. Wright likes to refer to as “all measures short of war,” is the new norm; that just because armies are not marching onto specified battlefields that does not mean we are not living in an age of perpetual conflict. In fact, the conflicts today are more dangerous because they are waged with very little accountability and occur not only in traditional strategic domains (land, sea, air, and space) but they cut across all spectrums of society–economics, legal, media, academia, cyber.
McFate says the Achilles’ Heel for most U.S. military planners and political leaders is that they conceive of warfare as something akin to being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t. But, that was so, yesterday. Now, war permeates every facet of every point in our lives. For decades, we’ve heard about “asymmetrical” or “unconventional” conflict: weaker foes with greater resolve using unorthodox warfare techniques to vanquish technically stronger opponents who may have weaker will and/or intellect. Both China and Russia have pioneered the strategies of unconventional warfare.
In 1999, two senior colonels in the People’s Liberation Army–after having witnessed the way the more technically advanced United States military humiliated Beijing during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996–set out to identify key weaknesses in the U.S. military and to devise strategies to exploit those weaknesses. Their observations were codified in the 1999 classic, Unrestricted Warfare.
Similarly, today, the Russians have crafted a set of policies meant to undermine and defeat the United States without facing the U.S. military in conventional combat. This was once known as the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” though there is some debate in academic circles as to whether or not this is an apt title. Mark Galeotti believes that there is no such thing as an official Gerasimov Doctrine. Though, as a shorthand, it tends to work. And, regardless of what you want to call it, these U.S. rivals have spearheaded techniques meant to stymie and confuse the United States in order to prosecute their revanchist agendas.
Here is McFate recent book talk at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Virginia:
Iran, North Korea, and other “rogue” states have learned to appreciate the merits of unconventional warfare when facing the United States juggernaut. Waging war just below the threshold of conventional war–what Israel refers to as the “gray zone”–works in the favor of U.S. enemies. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the Iranians would resort to the methods of targeting tankers in strategically vital waterways. This is a tactic that Iran has employed before when facing similar situations and they’ve honed these techniques well. The mullahs of Tehran fully understand that they cannot take the United States military in direct confrontation, but they hope to threaten the economic stability of the world system–and therefore, the United States–enough by mining the Strait of Hormuz that Washington seeks accommodation with them.
Of course, Tehran is wrong to believe that escalation against the United States through the energy trade will result in a weakened American response. In fact, it will likely result in a more robust U.S. response. It has been a key tenet–going back to the (for better or worse, likely the latter) Carter Administration to view an attack on the international oil trade as an attack on the United States. Iran knows not what it does. Hence, why I evoked the Al Pacino line from “The Godfather, Part III”: every time Americans think they’re out of the Mideast, something happens to pull them back in!
Although, engaging in another tanker war will not help our cause. Plus, should the United States go balls-to-the-wall against the Iran (as I suspect John Bolton, et al. wants to do), the apparent removal of the Iranian threat will prevent the coalescence of the Arab-Israeli NATO that so many of us have striven for (while at the same time remove the impetus for Arab support for a true peace settlement in the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict). What’s more, it will do little to mitigate the real threat the United States and its regional partners face from Iran: their nuclear weapons program.
Glory Be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout
The 1970 sequel to the original Planet of the Apes starring Charleton Heston, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, tells the tale of a society of post-apocalyptic humans living in the ancient subway network of what once was New York City (referred to as the “Great Desert” by the sentient apes who dominate the planet in this storyline). This band of post-apocalyptic humans have in their possession a nuclear weapon. It is their last and only real line of defense against the aggressive, sentient apes.
Their entire society has come to worship this gold-encased nuclear warhead and the bomb has become the centerpiece of their millennarian, apocalyptic religion. For these few surviving humans living in the wastelands of Earth, detonating the nuclear bomb will not only save them from the horrors the apes wish to impose upon them. But, the nuclear blast will also liberate them and usher them into a paradisical afterlife.
The current regime in Iran was founded by a man, Aytollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who belonged to the Mahdīst–Twelver–Shiite variant of the Muslim faith. This is one of the most literal and apocalyptic variants of the Shiite Muslim belief system. The dominant assumption is that Iran, having been created by a group of Islamic leaders who believe in this apocalyptic notion is seeking to engage in nuclear warfare with the West in order to achieve its goals of being the superior Islamic power–not unlike the leaders of the post-apocalyptic humans of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. While this is possible, it’s important to understand that regime survival is also a key component of Iran’s nuclear ambitions (though their pretensions toward Islamic supremacy and nuclear apocalypticism needn’t be divorced from their current objectives).
Iran, like North Korea, has associated a robust, indigenous nuclear arsenal as being the ticket for their regime’s long-term survival–at least when it comes to dealing with American military threats. Countries, such as Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, that did not possess a reliable nuclear arsenal were ultimately invaded and destroyed by the United States. However, states with nuclear arsenals–whether it was the Soviet Union of old or North Korea (with a less reliable nuclear arsenal)–have withstood the American military machine.
Iran hopes to be more like those states that were able to keep the Americans at bay while still behaving according to their own desires.
Yet, the nuclear arsenal is the major point of contention for the Americans. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that an amicable settlement will be broached between Washington and Tehran. There is simply no way that Iran will abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and, understandably, it is not fathomable for anyone in Washington (or Tel Aviv or Riyahdh) to allow for Tehran to acquire a fully independent, robust, and reliable nuclear weapons capability of its own.
Tanker War 2.0 and Beyond
Given the United States’ inability to abandon its hostilities with Iran over their nuclear weapons arsenal, it seems unlikely that the new Tanker War will be ameliorated any time soon. Going forward, Washington will have to make ready plans to diminish Iranian oil production by targeting its hostilities toward Kharg Island and other oil-producing spots. This will, of course, create complications for U.S. foreign policy. But, there seems little hope of a peaceful settlement at this point, considering that Iran will not abandon its push for nuclear weapons.
The new Tanker War, then, is just the beginning. At the same time, unless Saudi Arabia and the Israelis are willing to take the point in this new campaign against Iran, the United States will have to fight the Tanker War 2.0 tit-for-tat, just as the Iranians are. We must never forget that the Iranians will not abandon their quest for nuclear arms and we in the West simply cannot allow for them to acquire these nuclear capabilities. Therefore, one can anticipate the global price of oil to continue to increase–despite what many of the so-called “experts” claim. This will mean that Russia will become more belligerent over time with the West. Ultimately, though, the United States must do what it can–along with its regional allies–to deny Iran the potential to use nuclear arms against U.S. allies, such as Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
One thing is clear: the Iran threat is not going away anytime soon and will only worsen as the years go on.