Intelligence organizations in Israel and the West are decisive in their assessment: Iran was responsible for Thursday’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, as it was for other incidents in recent weeks in the area. But what they’re not yet providing is evidence to prove it.
And when we take into account historical precedents (notably the claims before the 2003 Iraq War that Saddam’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction), U.S. President Donald Trump’s credibility problem and European concerns about an unnecessary war, it’s no wonder the media chatter about the crisis is filled with skepticism.
In any event, the Iranian denials don’t sound convincing. The idea that Saudi Arabia initiated the attacks simply to push the United States into war with Iran, without tripping itself up or leaving traces, doesn’t seem serious. The Saudis have already proved how clumsy they can be, like the murder at their Istanbul Consulate of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the forced visit to Riyadh (basically an abduction) of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Of particular importance is the fact that Britain is pointing a finger at Tehran, adhering completely to what the Americans are claiming.
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What would guide the Iranians to attack the two oil tankers near Oman on Thursday, the second attack of its kind in a little over a month? Until last spring, the assessment in Israel and the United States had been that Iran was playing for time; it hoped Trump wouldn’t be reelected in November 2020 and his Democratic successor would restore Washington as a party to the Iranian nuclear accord and ease up on the sanctions. In the interim, the damage inflicted by the Trump administration’s sanctions, which were stiffened last month, has gotten worse.
Iran is more dependent than ever on its oil exports, but prices have remained modest; even the minor jolt of the recent incidents hasn’t increased prices significantly. Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a high-profile visit to Tehran this past week, stopped buying Iranian oil last month, following the expiration of the exemption the Americans had awarded Japan and seven other countries that were trading with Tehran.
It also appears that Iran’s relations with Russia aren’t what they once were. Moscow isn’t joining Washington in the Americans’ steps on the Iranian nuclear issue and is sticking to the Iranian nuclear agreement, but its constellation of interests with Tehran in Syria isn’t as strong as it was. Recently the Russians stopped protesting airstrikes attributed to Israel on Iranian bases in Syria.
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The three-way meeting of national security advisers from Israel, the United States and Russia due in Israel at the end of the month is also clearly not something that pleases the Iranians. It can be assumed they’re concerned that some kind of secret move is being devised to limit Iranian influence in Syria. The very presence of the two major powers at a meeting in Jerusalem where the top agenda is Syria’s future is an Israeli achievement.
Taking all this into consideration, the Iranians are apparently under pressure. Their main objective appears to be convincing the Americans to ease the sanctions. As usual, this is being done by going to the limit, conveying conflicting messages and spreading misleading information.
There were no casualties in the two attacks on the tankers, and an Iranian force even rescued the sailors from one of the ships that was hit. It’s also reasonable to believe that it’s not accidental that so far no American assets have been targeted, but rather ships and oil sites belonging to other countries.
At the same time, Iran keeps declaring that it will resume enrichment of uranium at a greater percentage, which in several months could see it violating the nuclear accord (of which five world powers are still signatories after the U.S. withdrawal in May 2018). This is also part of the challenge that is being posed to coax Washington to change its stance.
In one of his countless tweets, Trump labeled Iran “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror,” but for the time being the president isn’t taking a decisive stance on the Iranian issue, despite the ambitious 12-point plan to pressure Iran presented about a year ago by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a few comments over the past two months, Trump has hinted that there are things that could be discussed in negotiations with the Iranians if they chose to resume contacts with the United States.
The hawks in the U.S. administration have derived no pleasure from the prospect that Trump could meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani; they see the prospect of another budding friendship like the one that resulted from the peculiar meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
In the Iranian context, Israel’s unusual and even protracted silence is interesting. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said little on the Iranian issue, which is so close to his heart. When he does say something, he only mentions the risk that Iran presents in general terms.
Netanyahu’s cabinet colleagues appear to have been asked not to comment on the issue, and because several of them are awaiting more senior appointments in the current transition government, enforcing the policy of silence may be more easily done than normally. The Israeli interest appears pretty clear. Jerusalem hopes the U.S. administration will continue to pressure Iran, but in a rare move it’s trying to stay out of the storm. Israel doesn’t want to be accused of encouraging Trump to get into a direct confrontation with Tehran.
Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser for Netanyahu, said this explicitly in a radio interview this past week. Israel’s most important task, he said, is not to interfere with what the Americans are doing vis-à-vis Iran. And as in many cases in the past, we can assume that this time too, Amidror’s view reflects that of the prime minister.