Was Iran behind the Gulf oil tanker attacks? Bolton: 'Almost certainly'

US is balancing numerous developments in the region as national security adviser alleges that the Islamic republic was behind naval sabotage.

May 31, 2019 06:45
4 minute read.
iran submarine

Iranian submarines participate in a naval parade on the last day of the Velayat-90 war game in the Sea of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran January 3, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)

US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that Iran was behind the attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that took place earlier this month. He appeared to hedge his comments a bit though, prefacing them with “almost certainly” and then wondering “who else would you think would be doing it? Someone from Nepal?”

This wasn’t a replay of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous speech to the United Nations in 2003 before the US invasion of Iraq.

The US has said that “naval mines” were behind the damage to the ships – one from the UAE, two from Saudi Arabia and a fourth was from Norway. They were damaged on May 12; the US has indicated that Iran or its allies were behind the attack from the first days after the incident.

But where is the smoking gun? Where is the residue that links it to Iran; where are the photos of the mock-ups of the mines; where is the computer-generated simulation of what happened? How did mines float in to one of the busiest tanker routes in the world, not manage to sink any ships and only perfectly damage four ships in a way that enabled them to remain afloat?

And if frogmen placed the mines on the ships and reduced their payload in order to achieve this result, where is the radar image showing the boat the frogmen used scampering back to an Iranian port? After all, hasn’t the US navy increased its deployment since May 5 when Bolton said Iran posed an increasing threat?

Bolton’s comments leave all these questions behind because the US is reticent to roll out a massive amount of evidence that would force the White House to actually do something. Washington has indicated that if Iran or its proxies attacked the US or its allies, there would be a swift and decisive response. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also said that the US doesn’t want war with Iran, a statement he made on May 10. After the sabotage, Iranian-backed Houthis also used drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia, and two Iranian-backed militias are suspected of firing a rocket near the US embassy in Baghdad.

The US has therefore had ample time to give a “swift” response. And America has not done anything swiftly. Instead Bolton spoke with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince about regional issues. He did indicate that the White House was holding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force responsible for recent attacks.

Bolton is basically giving the US a blank check to retaliate if it wants to. But with so much happening in the region, it may be treading carefully for a reason.

While Bolton was in the UAE, the Iraqi prime minister went to Doha in Qatar. Bolton is in the UAE ahead of a Saudi-supported conference of Arab leaders. US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is also travelling to the Middle East to push a peace plan.

Sensitive timing. At the same time that Bolton has continued to warn Iran it turns out that Iran’s oil exports have fallen to only 400,000 barrels a day, according to Al-Arabiya. The US wants them to go to zero.

Other relevant issues are taking place that may bare on US policy in the region. The Taliban is in Moscow to discuss peace talks, the same peace talks they are supposed to be having with the US in Qatar.

At the same time, Moscow says that its delivery of the S-400 air defense system to Turkey will be ahead of schedule. Ankara is ostensibly a US ally, but is emerging as a Russian ally as well.

Iran is also appearing to climb down the tree of conflict. President Hassan Rouhani indicated that talks could happen if Trump ended sanctions, according to The National in the UAE. Iran’s foreign ministry also responded to Bolton’s comments, saying that Iran was patient and on high alert. It would frustrate any US threats, according to Tasnim News in Iran.

Fars News was more blunt: The US has no plans for military action. It was paraphrasing Bolton, an indication that Iran is calling the US bluff.

Now, the US enters a complex, new step in the region. Balancing several issues at once, including the Saudi-led conference of Arab states; Iraq’s attempts to mediate with the US; Turkey’s flirtation with Russia; and the desire to show Iran that the US means what it says.

Bolton can’t do all this, and Kushner will be in the spotlight as well this week regarding the “Deal of the Century.” Israel, which is a key ally of the US and which also opposes Iran’s growing influence in places like Syria and Lebanon, is in the midst of its own political crisis; it is noticeably quiet on these Iran issues.

And what happened to Pompeo? He had been fronting some of the discussion about Iranian threats to the region until the last few days.

His last major statement related to US arms sales to the region. “These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said on May 24.

Perhaps that is the “swift and decisive” retaliation the US meant when it warned Iran.

Four naval mines damaged ships, so the US rushed through $8 billion dollars worth of arms sales, most of which go to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That saves the US having to do anything – and Washington earns something as well, which would dovetail with Trump’s generally transactional view of foreign policy.

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