The recent tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman have heightened the potential for a dangerous conflict. Now that the US has accused Iran of being responsible, the likelihood of a military clash is significantly higher. There are several important circumstantial factors which could lead to the beginning of open hostilities.
First of all, the ability of Iran to engage in diplomatic manoeuvring in its relations with the United States and its allies has narrowed considerably. The development of the current crisis began in May 2018, following the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA). The Americans resumed heavy economic sanctions, blocking, among other things, the supply of Iranian oil to foreign markets. In May 2019, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. On the one hand, the Americans further strengthened the sanctions, removing exemptions for eight key nations which are consumers of Iranian oil. After Tehran threatened to refuse to fulfil certain obligations under the JCPOA in the event that the other signatories failed to fulfil their obligations under the JCPOA, Washington enhanced its sanctions. They were extended to include Iran’s metals exports. The EU is extremely cool about the prospect of Iran’s exit from the JCPOA. The position of Brussels began to change from the criticism of US policy and support for Tehran (with respect to observing the JCPOA) to calls for the Iranian leadership to continue to adhere to the deal.
As a result of the actions which were taken, the parties raised the stakes, but seriously exhausted the possibilities for a bargain. The US has already limited its ability to use sanctions as an incentive for obtaining concessions. Tehran seems to be convinced that now sanctions will be applied regardless of the number and depth of concessions Iran makes, and that therefore, any future concessions would be counterproductive. The Iranians, for their part, seem to have left room for manoeuvre: Tehran has so far only advanced an ultimatum and in fact has not yet torpedoed the JCPOA. But the very fact of this ultimatum has caused the US and remaining Western parties to the deal to see red, and ultimately had a negative effect.
The incidents with four tankers in mid-May were the first alarm. There were no great losses, but storm clouds began to form over the region. It became clear that no matter who is behind these provocations, they can have disproportionately serious consequences.
The bombing of two vessels in the Gulf of Oman significantly complicated the situation. First, weapons were used against tankers (torpedoes or mines), which are inaccessible to “ordinary people” (non-state actors). Second, there is a threat to shipping in a strategically important region. The accidents involving the two tankers raised serious concerns among ship owners, leading to a local increase of oil prices. Third, Washington levelled accusations against Iran, effectively placing responsibility for the incidents on Tehran.
An important fact to note is that such incidents have already occurred in the past. In the late 1980s, against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, a tanker war broke out in the Persian Gulf. The parties staged a real hunt for oil-transporting tankers. Foreign ships suffered as well. From 1984 to 1987, 340 tankers were damaged. The development ended with a short but intense and bloody collision between the US Air Force and Navy and Iran. In order to eliminate Iranian mine-setting activity, the Americans conducted Operation Praying Mantis. It called for the seizure of oil platforms that the Iranians used for military purposes. A subsequent skirmish on April 18, 1988 became the largest naval battle since the Second World War. The Iranian fleet lost a frigate, a rocket boat and three high-speed vessels. Another frigate and two oil platforms were damaged. The Americans only lost one helicopter.
Is a similar situation possible today? Yes, it is quite possible. There is a large US naval group in the region. US allies in the region (particularly Saudi Arabia) have formidable military potential. Iran itself may well feel driven into a corner, and feel that raising the stakes a justifiable strategy. Military encounters at sea and in the air, strikes targeting Iran’s coastal infrastructure, and retaliatory strikes from Iran are a likely scenario.
The problem is that the risk of a larger and protracted conflict today may exceed that witnessed in the late 1980s. Objectively, no one is interested in a big war. A major conflict will hurt everyone. It will subject the Iranians to even harsher economic conditions. The humanitarian consequences of the war will be monstrous for the country. The Gulf monarchies will suffer serious damage due to problems with their oil exports. The USA will be drawn into a costly new conflict, which is unnecessary for Donald Trump as election year approaches. Rising oil prices will affect the growth rate of the global economy.
Realising that the war is costly for the opposite side, the parties can go on increasing the stakes, hoping that the opponent will blink first. The problem is that control over this process of brinkmanship can be quite easy to lose.
One of the reasons is the fluctuation of responsibility within the respective decision-making “headquarters”. A struggle between “hawks” and supporters of a more cautionary approach exists on both sides. For the “hawks”, the current situation is objectively more beneficial. During a crisis, it is much easier to look for threats than opportunities. The coming months will see a dangerous and unstable phase of this conflict, characterised by the risk of open hostilities.
First published in Valdai Discussion Club.