A look at who's playing whom in the Gulf – and for what

Experts weigh in on the recent escalation of violence against shipping and other targets in the region

June 21, 2019 13:03
A look at who's playing whom in the Gulf – and for what

A Nour missile is test fired off Iran's first domestically made destroyer, Jamaran, on the southern shores of Iran in the Persian Gulf March 9, 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS/EBRAHIM NOROOZI/IIPA)

The Gulf region is reeling from attacks on at least six commercial tankers – four in one day in May off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman, and two more on June 13 in the Gulf of Oman, just southeast of the strategic Strait of Hormuz and closer to the Iranian coast.

The likely culprit, according to Dr. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, is Iran.

“Several months ago, [Tehran] seems to have reached a point of no return regarding strategic patience and trying to wait out the Trump administration, getting no relief from the European powers and selling virtually no oil at all in May,” Ibish told The Media Line via email. “They then let it be known in word and deed that they were shifting to a policy of counter-escalation or, as some have put it, ‘strategic recklessness.’” As a way of defining “strategic recklessness,” Ibish notes that “the attacks are carefully calibrated to deny anyone in the US who is looking for a casus belli the opportunity to start a war. There is a degree of limited scope – no ship was sunk, no one was taken prisoner and no one was injured.”

Dr. Mohammed Saqr Alsulami, who heads the Saudi-based International Institute for Iranian Studies, says we must also take into consideration the Iranians’ worldview, something they make very clear in their constitution.

“The way they present their mission, their duty is to control the region, to export the revolution, to pave the way for the hidden imam, which they believe will appear when there is chaos in the region,” Alsulami told The Media Line, referring to a Shi’ite religious belief akin to the Second Coming.

But are they strong enough militarily? “The Iranian strategy,” he said, “is to avoid direct confrontations. They know their own weaknesses. They are trying to use non-state [Shi’ite] actors to do the work for them, and they [themselves] lead from behind. And then they say ‘We have nothing to do with that.’” Asulami was referring in general to Iran’s preference for proxies, for example the Houthis in Yemen, who have been launching attacks of their own against Saudi Arabia, which is leading a Sunni coalition in an effort to destroy the Shi’ite militia. But even if Iran itself was directly involved in the tanker attacks, he thinks people should point the finger at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rather than at the Iranian government.

“The IRGC doesn’t report to the government; it reports to Khamenei, the supreme leader,” Asulami told The Media Line. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the IRGC carried out this action without informing the government.”

Ephraim Kam, a retired Israeli intelligence colonel and today a senior researcher and Iran specialist at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Strategic Studies, is willing – barely – to entertain the possibility that the attacks on the tankers might have been carried out by a proxy.

“If it’s not Iran, who else is it? You don’t have too many candidates,” he told The Media Line.

“It could be one of the Shi’ite militias that are under the control of the Iranians, whether they are the Houthis in Yemen – which are actually an army rather than a militia – or another Shi’ite group in one of the small Gulf states, and maybe even Iraq, by the way. I don’t see any other candidate that might be interested and dare to do it and might also have these kinds of weapons,” he said.

But even if it is a proxy, Kam thinks the Iranians certainly have a hand in it.

“They want to put pressure on the Americans to stop the imposition of sanctions, and maybe bring the Americans back into the [2015] nuclear agreement,” he said. “But this is not the way to do it. They will just make the Americans very angry, and they are going to make the Saudis very angry, and the Saudis have some capabilities to respond if they decide to.”

It was reported that on Sunday, three days after the latest attacks on the tankers, two F-15Cs, one belonging to the United States, the other to Saudi Arabia, made a flight over the Gulf together, apparently as a joint show of force. Yet the retired intelligence officer thinks that while the Saudis have excellent military equipment, they have no stomach for war.

“The Saudis don’t have any experience in fighting. They have never fought any kind of war,” Kam explained to The Media Line. “They’d have to take into account that the Iranians would respond and there’s going to be a confrontation that is going to affect the shipment of oil [and] oil sites. They might pay a very heavy price.”

The US on the other hand, has not only the equipment, but the experience. But he doesn’t expect American retaliation – at least this time around.

“If the Americans were going to respond militarily to last Thursday’s attacks, they would have done so [within] 24-48 hours, and every day that passes and the Americans do nothing, it means that for the time being, [the tanker attacks are not serious enough of a reason] for them to respond,” Kam said. “But I assume that another operation on the part of those who did the last one could bring the Americans to do something.”

Ibish is not so sure.

“Ultimately, Iran's intention is to call President Trump's bluff. They clearly believe he does not want to go to war, and that any push in that direction is largely driven by National Security Advisor John Bolton,” he wrote to The Media Line.

“I think they think they can drive a wedge between Trump and Bolton and force Trump to choose between moving toward accommodation and away from his very effective ‘maximum pressure’ campaign or actually going to war, which they are convinced he does not want,” Ibish said. “But obviously, they are also prepared to see that policy fail and end up in a conflict with the United States for which they have been preparing for decades. They do not seek a war, exactly, but they are obviously willing to risk one in order to get out of an impossible conundrum.”

All of this, he says, is in effect a message.

“The message to the outside world is: We are desperate, we have no other options and we can make life miserable for you, too,” Ibish said. “Iranian officials [have] frequently stated that if they cannot sell oil, nobody can sell oil. I think this is designed to demonstrate that this is not an empty bluff.”

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