U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a meeting with cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
Burning oil tankers off the coast of Iran, allegedly attacked in the early hours of Thursday morning, have put the Trump administration in a bind over what to do about rising tensions with Tehran.
Oil priced jumped as news emerged that more than forty sailors had to be rescued and images showed a tanker ablaze.
Last month, the US ordered a carrier strike group to the waters off Iran and warned that although Washington was not seeking war that it was prepared to respond to any attack by Iran and its proxies.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq where he reportedly showed the Iraqis intelligence on the threats. These might be threats from pro-Iranian militias, the US indicated.
It didn’t take long for the threats to emerge. Days later four tankers were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. Then, eleven days after Pompeo flew to Iraq, a rocket fell near the US embassy.
Now the US was in a bind. It had threatened to act, but Washington didn’t want a major conflict with Iran. Although US officials spoke privately about Iran behind behind the May 12th tanker sabotage, the US waited until May 29 to say that Iran was “almost certainly” the culprit.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the US carrier strike group and warning had deterred Iran. But the threat persists, he said on May 30.
Iran, meanwhile, has been on a winning streak. The German Foreign Minister was in Iran this week and so was the Japanese Prime Minister. Not bad for the Iranian regime that is supposed to be isolated. Iran has claimed the June 13 attack on the oil tankers just miles off the coast of its naval base at Jask is “suspicious.”
The Trump administration is now in a bind on how to respond. With the Bahrain summit coming up on January 25 it must consider what to do next. First of all someone has to make a determination what caused the harm to the tankers. The fire on the Front Altair and images show a seriously damaged ship.
This isn’t the small sabotage of last month. With such a massive incident, the US will have to show that its threats are not empty, and that it can guarantee the safety of ships in the Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. Even if someone alleges that the attack was not carried out by Iran, then it was carried out by someone else, which still endangers shipping.
Is it suspicious that the attack happened with the Japanese leader was in Iran? Or was his visit cover for the attack? Perhaps having him there makes Iran appear less likely to have done something so brazen.
This will inevitably feed the conspiracies of “false flags” and “the new Gulf of Tonkin,” a reference to an incident that helped lay the groundwork for deeper US involvement in Vietnam.
But Iran’s media doesn’t seem to shy away from pushing this incident. It was Iranian media that first reported the attacks and it is Iranian media that has put up images of one of the damaged ships.
In addition, Iranian social media accounts have pushed a 2017 video of a Houthi attack on a Saudi ship as if it is the June 13 attack.
Why would Iran be so enthusiastic about showing off the attack? Wouldn’t they prefer to downplay it, knowing the tensions are high? Wouldn’t they seek to deny it immediately or spread information about others being responsible.
Iran has boasted of saving the crew members of the ships. This may also be part of Tehran’s attempts to gain favor abroad by appearing responsible.
Online some have pointed out that the ship was targeted not from the Iranian side, but from the side facing international waters. That would require a submarine or attacker to have gone around the ship to shoot at it from the side facing the Gulf.
The Trump administration is focused on China, Mexico and other issues at the moment. Iran is not in the president’s main agenda, at least not at the moment.
The tanker attack will change that and will require both Pompeo and Bolton to look closely at what happened. Pompeo last announced new “maximum pressure” on June 7.
Six days later he may have a crises on his hands. Countries in the region will be watching to see how the US handles it.