Iran said that it seized another ship on Sunday – an oil tanker it accused of smuggling oil from Iraq. Tehran has also mocked America's attempt to create an international coalition to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. In short, Iran’s message is: We can do whatever we want in our Gulf and Strait.
This is a far cry from the early days of May when the US warned Tehran against any provocations and threatened “unrelenting force.” Instead Washington has been cautious in its response. First came the sabotage of four tankers in May 12 and then the attack on two more on June 13, rockets fired near US bases in Iraq in mid-June, the downing of the US drone on June 20, harassment of a British oil tanker on July 11, capture of the tanker Riah on July 13 and the capture of a British tanker on July 19, as well as the recent seizing of another tanker on August 4.
Iran would argue that all of these incidents are responses, or deny that it had even carried out some of them. But it increasingly appears that the Islamic republic is involved not only in the attacks in Iraq, but also attacks in Saudi Arabia and against the tankers. But the real message is that Iran can do what it wants, and there is no “unrelenting” response. In fact, there is little response. The US has said that sanctions are breaking Iran and that it is facing “relentless” pressure. Iran says it faces “economic terrorism” and accuses the US and UK, as well as others, of working against it. Iran is scrapping parts of the nuclear deal in response. But its real message is closer to home. Iran knows that no country has the stomach for a conflict with it, and most won’t join a US coalition in the Gulf. It also knows that the UK wants de-escalation amid the Brexit crisis and that US President Donald Trump does not want war.
Tehran has read the American playbook and, through its recent actions, is attempting to assert power in the Persian Gulf: power not just in the areas controlled by its coastal waters, but real power – to show that it is the only one that guarantees security in the Gulf.Iran has said as much and wants to show that this is the case. Yet it holds out a fig leaf about peace to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Javad Zarif, who was sanctioned by the US last week, has reached out to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. The UAE appears to be reciprocating, with one Emirati minister indicating that both Gulf countries want diplomacy over conflict.