Hardliners, ‘false flags’ and revenge: The Iranian tanker attack's narrative

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019 (photo credit: ISNA/REUTERS)
An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019
(photo credit: ISNA/REUTERS)
Within hours of news emerging that tankers had been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, a variety of narratives emerged about why it might have happened. Among some who accepted the US claim that Tehran was behind the attack, there was a concerted effort to excuse Iran’s role. This consists of a plethora of voices which include outright supporters of Iran, critics of US President Donald Trump, analysts and experts on the Middle East.
What follow is a list of the most common explanations, as well as excuses, used to explain or obfuscate about Iran’s alleged involvement in the attack.
Who benefits?
The most common initial question many asked was “who benefits?” The narrative notes that Iran’s regime doesn’t appear to gain by attacking tankers in the middle of the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. One of them was even Japanese-owned, thus embarrassing Abe, who was in Iran to try to help ease tensions between Iran and the US. It would “boost those who seek to apply military pressure on Iran,” one article at CNN noted.
The Middle East Eye notes “from a rational cui bono point of view, few would seem to benefit from a disruption of trade on these strategic waterways.” The analysis argued that “only those who want escalation will benefit.”
The “hard liners” did it
If Iran did attack the tankers then it must be a sub-set of the Iranian regime, or some rogue element. In this narrative, it is Iran’s so-called “hard liners” that are to blame. This includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US has labeled a terrorist organization. In this narrative the “moderates” in Tehran, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, are trying to play good cop, while a separate part of Iran supposedly seeks to “stage” or “sabotage” the efforts of the moderates.
There are hard liners on both sides, according to some accounts.
“The risk is that hard liners in both Tehran and Washington become mutual enablers, going up a very unsteady escalatory ladder,” said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state. Former Obama administration member Colin Kahl pointed to a quote from Ali Vaez in The Washington Post as “spot on.” The quote claimed that “spoilers” were trying to “engineer a Gulf of Tonkin incident.”
IRGC expert Afshon Ostovar didn’t agree with this assessment.
“Let us all understand this: The IRGC does not go rogue in the strategic arena,” Ostovar said. “It is a firm part of the decision making establishment. The Islamic Republic isn’t a street gang or a militant group. It’s an authoritarian state with an ordered and fixed strategic process.”
Dina Esfandiary at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs argued that “there are multiple likely/possible culprits both in Iran and outside. And even possible that whoever did it, didn’t necessarily do it with approval from higher-ups. Either way, a bit early to jump to conclusions at such a sensitive time.”
Former US assistant secretary of state Philip Crowley argued that by attacking a Japanese ship during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit the “IRGC hard liners are trying to embarrass the Tehran government still interested in engaging the West.”
Where is the “evidence?”
There is no concrete evidence that Iran conducted the attack, many argued. Even after the US showed video of Iranians removing a mine from the Kokuka Courageous, some argue this is merely what the US “says,” or that it isn’t clear what the Iranians are really doing. One article notes the evidence is “inconclusive and highly politicized.”
Director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group Ali Vaez critiqued US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that Iran was behind the attack, calling it a “little performance aimed at accusing Iran for this morning’s tanker attacks was stunning in one sense: how many inaccuracies can one jam pack into a four-min speech?”
Negar Mortazavi, a consultant editor at The Independent noted that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 also lacked evidence, in a tweet discussing the tanker attacks. The lack of evidence pointed to “war lust,” another commentator said.
Kelly Magsamen of the Center for American Progress argued for an international investigation.
“I think that there should be an international investigation before reaching this conclusion given the potential consequences. It could be Iran but why would they attack Japanese cargo when the PM was in town?”
Former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes agreed.
“This definitely feels like the kind of incident where you’d want an international investigation to establish what happened. Huge risk of escalation,” he said.
Iranians wouldn’t be “stupid” enough to do this
Since the Iranian regime is considered to be sophisticated and rational, then why would they be so “stupid” as to do this. “Makes no sense for Iran to be attacking considering how desperately its enemies are looking for an excuse,” one man argued.
A linked argument notes that Iran may have been this stupid and that in doing so it has overplayed its hand. By doing so, the US and EU may finally see eye-to-eye on Iran’s nefarious activities.
The Atlantic Council had a slightly different take: “Continued attacks that are difficult to directly attribute to the Iranian regime or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are likely Tehran’s preferred course of action as tensions continue, making the opportunity to inadvertently cross either a US or coalition partner redline increasingly possible.”
Boosting the price of oil
Iran may have done this to boost the price of oil as its own oil exports decline amid sanctions. Ostovar tweeted that: “civilians ships and tankers seem to be the sweet spot for pushback below the threshold of escalation.”
To get back at the US for sanctions
Iran did it, but it was only because they had to do this to get back at the US for sanctions. If Iran can’t export oil, then no one else should. In this narrative, Iran wants to disrupt oil routes to get back at Trump. Several prominent articles argued that the attack showed that the US “maximum pressure” campaign was actually making Iran more aggressive. The assertion that the attack was retaliation was also put forward by academic Thomas Juneau: “US maximum pressure hits Iran hard, can’t be surprised if Iran retaliates.”
Academic Nicholas Miller noted that US actions had dimmed chances for negotiations: “Turns out reneging on the JCPOA, reimposing sanctions, demanding complete capitulation, and threatening to ‘end Iran’ isn’t conducive to negotiations.”
Saudi Arabia, Israel and “neo-conservatives” did it
In this theory, a complex conspiracy is involved. Experts note that the tanker Front Altair was struck from the side facing international waters, not Iran. So could this mean the attack came from another direction. In a corollary to this logic the incident is said to benefit “a spoiler not interested in mediation and de-escalation, but in confrontation.” Therefore the attack frames part of a larger agenda involving “neo-conservative hawks in Washington, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tel Aviv against Iran,” as the Middle East Eye claims. An article at The Washington Post used the same “spoilers” line: “If Iran was not behind it, then it’s clear some other actor in the region could be trying to engineer a Gulf of Tonkin incident. Spoilers might be concerned the mediators are succeeding in reducing tension.”
An article from the Grayzone notes that “neo-conservatives” were quick to highlight the incident. “Neoconservative Senator Marco Rubio, who has spent the past five months heavily lobbying for US military intervention in Venezuela, quickly turned his attention to Iran,” the article notes. Even though it was Iran’s media that first bragged about the attack, the Saudi media’s reporting is used to show that Saudi Arabia was pushing for war.
US Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard tweeted, “Trump’s shortsighted foreign policy is bringing us to the brink of war with Iran and allowing Iran to accelerate nuclear program – just to please Saudis and Netanyahu. This is not America first.” The claim that Bolton, Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince are in league to start a war was often mentioned on social media.
May 12 incident was a “warning” to the US
Iran already tried to warn the US that its policies will result in escalation. On May 12, four tankers were damaged and this was the first part of Iran’s plan. But the US didn’t appear to listen and therefore Iran increased its escalation on June 13. In this narrative, Iran is culpable but it is part of a reaction to US sanctions.
In this logic, the Trump administration dug itself into this hole.
“If Iran is the culprit, the Trump Administration has only itself to blame for pushing Tehran to take aggressive steps that it has eschewed since the worst days of the Iran-Iraq War,” Ali Vaez said.
Commentator Esfandyar Batmanghelidj agrees.
“Instead of speculating about who’s behind the tanker attacks, we should step back and recognize that such an event would have been totally unthinkable just six months ago. In this sense, who committed the attack matters less than who created the environment,” Batmanghelidj said.
Trump administration is trying to “derail” Japan talks
The Trump administration blamed Iran for the attacks to harm the visit by Japan’s prime minister. This “coincidence” was noted by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who called the attacks “suspicious,” on June 13. Later other media picked up this narrative. An article at the Grayzone pointed out that “prominent Iran export Trita Parsi noted that the timing of the suspicious attacks suggest that there is fear in Washington that efforts at Iran-Japan diplomacy might succeed in softening the de-facto US-led economic blockade of Tehran.”
A corollary to this argument is to downplay the attacks as if they only “supposedly” happened.
The attack was a “false flag”
Iran’s Press TV claimed that the attack might be part of a “false flag” that would enable the US to attack Iran: “US and allies use incidents like tanker attacks to wage war.” In this narrative, the attack on the tankers is similar to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 that led to wider US involvement in Vietnam. It is thus linked to a long history of supposed conspiracies and false narratives that were used to push America into war, from 1898 to today. Theorists also linked the attack to a US bombing of a Chinese embassy during the war with Serbia in 1999.
The theory is that some shadowy groups may want war between the US and Iran. “They may be willing to pay both sides to fight each other,” one commentator asserted.
Tankers were purposely sent to provoke Iran
Trita Parsi retweeted a theory that links the Gulf of Oman incident to the Gulf of Tonkin when US warships were attacked off the coast of North Vietnam. Justin Halpen claims: “My dad was on the U.S.S. Maddox, the boat that was ‘attacked’ that started the Vietnam War. He said no one could understand why they were in the Tonkin gulf until one officer at breakfast goes, ‘they sent us here to get blown up so they can start a war they really want to start.’” The difference, as one person pointed out, is that these were tankers using an international shipping lane.
Iranians who did it are so smart they count on lack of trust in US
Ariane Tabatabai noted that “if the attack was perpetrated by Iran, it may have been banking precisely on lack of trust in the US.” She also concluded that “when you keep calling wolf, at some point you lose the credibility needed for real situations.”