What once seemed to be a distant possibility is now in front of us. A series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf area have raised tensions. The United States has accused Iran of being behind the attacks and has recently reinforced its forces in the region. Elements of the White House are known to be advocating strong action. Is conflict ahead?
What happened? On June 13 two tankers experienced explosions that resulted in fire and the evacuation of crews. This followed similar attacks on four tankers on May 12 although these earlier attacks did not require abandoning the ships. Fortunately, no lives have been lost.
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There is disagreement about exactly what happened, so speculation is rampant. Missiles, torpedoes, mines, and “projectiles” have all been suggested. Torpedoes and sea mines are unlikely because they are extremely powerful and, if they had been used, the ships would have been severely damaged and likely have sunk. Missiles and projectiles are possible but much more visible. Someone would have seen them launched and in-flight. Most likely, then, are “limpet” mines. These are small, hand emplaced mines that would cause the limited damage that has been seen. They can be stealthily emplaced from small boats.
These attacks happened in the context of a US campaign to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran to revise the 2015 nuclear agreement. That agreement, signed by the Obama administration, provided Iran with relief from sanctions in return for restrictions on its nuclear program. In May 2018, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the agreement, arguing that it was too limited. The campaign has caused severe economic hardship in Iran.
Did Iran conduct the attacks? The evidence so far is suggestive but not conclusive. A grainy video distributed by the United States shows an Iranian boat pulling away from a damaged tanker having removed an undetonated mine. Even if the U.S. accusation were true, removing a mine is not the same as planting a mine. The Iranians could claim that this is part of their maritime rescue mission.
On the other hand, there is a precedent. The Iranians planted mines in the 1980s and have often threatened military action. A preliminary investigation into the May incident concluded that it was caused by a “state actor’ but did not name a party.
There is history here. In 1988 Iran was caught mining the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. It was signaling its anger at the United States and others for appearing to side with Iraq. The United States matched the mines with those in the Iranian inventory and later caught the Iranians red-handed with mines on their ships. In retaliation, the United States took down several Iranian oil platforms and sank half the Iranian Navy in 48 hours.
Why would Iran be doing this? Iran might have two reasons for doing this. One is to signal to its population and armed forces that it is not taking the U.S. sanctions passively. Another is to put pressure on other countries, particularly the Europeans and Japanese, to pressure the United States to ease sanctions. Because of the risk of US retaliation, it would be a very dangerous game.
Forensics are important. The experience of 1988 shows the importance of good forensic evidence to convince allies and publics that military action is justified. So far, the evidence has been suggestive but not conclusive. However, explosions leave fragments and residues that can be analyzed. Witnesses can be interviewed and electronic records reviewed. This may not be a quick process. In 1984 there was a series of minings in the Red Sea, and it took a year to prove conclusively that Libya was responsible.
Forensics are particularly important because of two historical ghosts: Iraqi WMD and the Tonkin Gulf incidents. In 2003 the United States went to war with Iraq because of alleged Iraqi possession of WMD, which turned out to be erroneous. In 1965 the United States launched attacks on North Vietnam because of North Vietnamese attacks on US ships in the Tonkin Gulf. Although some attacks did occur, others were likely errors, and in any case, the U.S. misrepresented what had happened. Thus, there is a feeling that the United States twice went to war because of government misrepresentation.
What kind of military action might happen? The first action is likely to be some sort of monitoring of the maritime region and escorting of ships. This would reduce the possibility of future attacks. Many countries would probably be willing to contribute military assets to such a mission because it is defensive.
If the Iranians did set these mines, it would be an act of war. Thus, if the forensics were conclusive, the United States would likely conduct punitive strikes against Iran. It has the forces in theater to do this—ships, including an aircraft carrier, and ground-based aircraft. It does not have enough forces to conduct an extended air/naval campaign and certainly not enough for any sort of invasion of Iran.
If there were a conflict, could Iran close the Straits of Hormuz and shut off the supply of oil? Because 30 percent of the world’s oil flows through the Straits, this is often portrayed as a nightmare scenario where the global economy grinds to a halt for lack of fuel. However, Iran lacks the capability to do this. Although the straits are narrow, they are wide enough and deep enough that they cannot be closed by sinking a few ships. The Iranian Navy and Air Force are too weak to take on the United States and its allies. In a conflict, they would be quickly destroyed and Iran’s ability to interfere with sea traffic eliminated. However, the Iranians could cause temporary damage and disruption that would spike the price of oil and cause global jitters.
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What to watch for. More attacks are certainly possible since there have already been two. Further attacks would increase anxiety in the region and among countries that received oil from the region, especially Europe and Japan. That would lower the bar for military action.
If the US were to further reinforce its position, that would signal the possibility of military action. Back in August, I gave five indicators for U.S. military action against Iran. Two have occurred (“reinforced security at U.S. bases in the region” and “increased U.S. naval activity”). So, stay tuned.