Tue, Jun 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Using plausible deniability to thwart conflict

It might be better to let Iran off the hook for suspected attacks on several tankers than to risk another war in the region

By John Andrews

What will constitute yet another act of war in the Middle East? On May 12, four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf — two of them Saudi Arabian, one from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the other Norwegian — were attacked with explosives as they lay at anchor near the Strait of Hormuz. Then, on June 13, in the Gulf of Oman, just beyond the strait, two more tankers (one Japanese and the other Norwegian) were hit by mines. The US government regards Iran as the obvious culprit, whereas Iran claims that it is a victim of what US President Donald Trump might call “fake news.”

Regardless of who is to blame, the risk of a dangerous escalation is obvious. Following Iran’s subsequent downing of a US surveillance drone, the mutual recrimination has intensified and the risk of all-out war has grown.

The Strait of Hormuz, leading from the Persian/Arabian Gulf (even the choice of adjective is politically sensitive) to the Gulf of Oman and then to the Indian Ocean, is a 33.8km-wide chokepoint through which one-fifth of the world’s crude oil passes.

Economic logic says that closing, or even narrowing, the strait will lead to higher oil prices and a global recession.

Political logic says threatening the supply of the world’s economic lifeblood will lead to military intervention by the US and other outside powers — thereby adding another regional conflict to those in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

However, none of that is inevitable. Although two acts of sabotage in a month can certainly be a casus belli, the saboteurs have not been clearly identified.

So far, the US has produced a grainy, black-and-white video and a few color photographs of a patrol boat from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Japanese tanker.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the video proves Iran’s guilt.

Iran said it was rushing to prevent more damage and to rescue 44 innocent seamen.

Conclusive proof is unlikely to emerge. Both France and the UK said the evidence points to Iran, but critics of US foreign policy argue that Iran might be blameless.

One such skeptic is the UK’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who could soon be the country’s prime minister and who demands “credible evidence” of Iranian responsibility.

Corbyn, of course, tends to support any opponent of the US, from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to Russian President Vladimir Putin (he initially refused to accept that Russia was involved in the poisoning of a Russian defector in the English city of Salisbury last year). Where Corbyn leads, others on the far left will doubtless follow.

If credibility is the issue, why not ask that lawyerly question cui bono — who benefits? Iran might seem the likeliest candidate. Its economy has been squeezed ever more tightly by US sanctions following Trump’s decision a year ago to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Those sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports to a relative trickle of 400,000 barrels per day (bpd), compared with 2.5 million bpd in April last year.

Meanwhile, the EU’s attempts to provide Iran with a financial escape route from the sanctions have proved futile, owing to the threat of punitive US action against European banks.

On Monday last week, Iran underlined its dismay at the lack of European support by threatening to exceed within days the JCPOA’s limit on the country’s uranium enrichment. That would mean the death of the deal — and would heighten the risk that Iran will strive to acquire nuclear weapons.

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