Iran is making good on its threats.
Last Thursday’s bombing of two oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz was just the latest in a string of attacks that have taken place in the maritime choke point in the past month. Thirty percent of global petroleum exports transit the Straits of Hormuz annually.
On April 22, Alireza Tangsiri, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval force, announced that if the U.S. went ahead with placing a full embargo on Iranian petroleum exports, Iran would close the Straits of Hormuz. “If we are prevented from using it, we will close it,” Tangrisi said, according to the state-run Fars news agency.
On May 10, four fuel tankers were attacked outside the Fujairah port of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). U.S. investigators assessed that the ships were attacked with magnetic limpet mines, as in Thursday’s attacks. U.S. Central Command published photos of such a mine on the Kokuka Courageous, one of the two ships attacked on Thursday. Apparently a dud, the mine didn’t detonate during the attack. Central Command later published video footage of an alleged IRGC naval craft removing the unexploded ordnance, apparently to prevent U.S. forces from seizing it and using it to prove that Iran conducted the attack.
According to the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, Thursday’s attacks occurred in the Gulf of Oman close to the Iranian port of Jask. The port serves as “an Iranian naval base and a center for drones and submarines.”
MECRA’s website reports that the Iranian naval base at Jask “has submarines, drones and anti-ship missiles have been tested near the site. Major Iranian naval operations took place in the area in February.”
Given the abundance of evidence linking Iran to the attacks, reasonably, on Thursday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid responsibility for that day’s attacks, along with the May 10 attacks and a host of other attacks that have taken place in recent weeks.
In Pompeo’s words, the assessment was based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks in shipping and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act iwith such a high degree of sophistication.”
Despite the video footage, the proximity of the attacks to the Iranian naval base, the open threats against shipping in the Straits of Hormuz made by Tangsiri and other senior Iranian officials in recent weeks, and the IRGC’s aggressive detainment of the crew of the Front Altair — the second ship attacked on Thursday — Germany, the EU, Russia, and China refused to admit that Iran carried out the attacks.
Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister who was in Tehran meeting with “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei earlier this week, insisted Thursday that the footage of the IRGC crew removing the unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous was insufficient.
“The video is not enough,” he said. “We understand what is begin shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, that is not enough for me.”
The European Union similarly refuses to lay the blame on Iran. It released a statement saying, “While we are gathering additional information and evidence and consolidating the elements available, we will refrain from speculations and premature conclusions.”
Russia also refuses to acknowledge that Iran is behind the attacks. China’s President Xi Jinping met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a high-profile summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Council on Friday. There, he pledged to develop a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Iran.
Even Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in the middle of a meeting with Khamenei in Tehran when the Japanese and Norwegian tankers were bombed, has yet to acknowledge that Iran was responsible for the attacks. Abe was in Tehran hoping to mediate between Khamenei and President Donald Trump. Kahmenei flatly refused his offer.
On the face of it, the refusal of ostensible U.S. allies like Germany, Japan, and the EU — and U.S. adversaries like China and Russia — to acknowledge Iran’s obvious guilt for the attacks on oil shipping and pipelines in the Persian Gulf region over the past month is odd. Don’t they want to end Iran’s aggression?
Why would they shield Iran from responsibility for aggression that threatens the global economy and threatens their own economic interests far more than it threatens U.S. economic interests? After all, since the U.S. began producing shale oil, U.S. exposure to global oil shocks has dramatically decreased.
The U.S. today is the largest oil producing country. States like Japan and China are much more vulnerable to oil supply disruptions from the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab, another maritime choke point now controlled by Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen.
There are various reasons that a variety of governments do not wish to acknowledge Iran’s responsibility for the attacks. First, as has been reported, Maas and Abe were both in Iran ostensibly to reinstate negotiations between Iran and the U.S. As self-appointed mediators, the Japanese and the Europeans likely wish to be seen as neutral parties. They likely fear that by acknowledging that Iran is responsible for the attacks on shipping, Iran will refuse to speak to them.
As for negotiations, the Europeans – led by the Germans – have refused to accept any U.S. demands for significant revisions of the 2015 nuclear deal the Obama administration led them in concluding with the Iranian regime. In the lead up to Trump’s decision last May to pull out of the nuclear deal, senior state department official Brian Hook conducted intensive negotiations with the EU to convince them to make substantive changes in the agreement. They refused.
If they acknowledge that Iran is behind the attacks in the Persian Gulf, it will make it more difficult for them to maintain their position that Iran’s terrorism, and other forms of aggression, as well as its missile tests are all of a piece with its nuclear proliferation. If that happens, they will be hard pressed to maintain their stubborn allegiance to the 2015 deal, which is founded on the false premise that Iran is an inherently peaceful, non-hostile actor that just needs to be appeased.
Another reason that so many governments – both hostile and ostensibly allied with the U.S. — refuse to acknowledge Iran’s effectively self-evident responsibility for the tanker attacks is because doing so will make it more difficult for them to argue against U.S. sanctions.
Governments in Japan, Germany, China and other states are interested in ending or abating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. As Benny Avni argued Wednesday in the New York Sun, the German and Japanese push to renew negotiations between Iran and the U.S. is at least in part due to their desire “to revive the smooth flow of goods and business with Iran.”
Their diplomacy, he argued, “is meant to put pressure on Washington to start a process that would lead to direct talks. Iran, they claim, will behave better now that its economy is strained. America should take advantage and aim for a fresh rapprochement,” he wrote.
Obviously, Iran’s wanton and repeated aggression against peaceful maritime traffic in international waterways is evidence that the contrary is true. Iran is certainly hurting economically as a result of U.S. sanctions. But its response is not to improve its behavior in order to diminish U.S. economic pressure. Rather, Iran is responding to the U.S. sanctions by escalating its aggression, thus proving that the Trump administration’s decision to renew and strengthen economic sanctions against Iran was justified and reasonable.
It is difficult to imagine that mere embarrassment will pry the Europeans away from their preference for ignoring the reality of Iranian aggression in order to pursue their longstanding policy of appeasing Iran and its terrorist proxies. Germany and the EU still refuse to acknowledge that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is permitted to operate openly in EU states despite the fact that it has been caught planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe repeatedly in recent years. Indeed, Britain took no actionagainst Hezbollah after Israel tipped it off in 2015 that Hezbollah had built a bomb factory in North London. The British Parliament only outlawed the Iranian proxy force in February 2019.
Whereas Britain, with its close ties to the U.S., has sometimes evinced a willingness to abandon general European appeasement of terrorists and state sponsors of terror, Germany, France, and other major European governments have never entertained the prospect of abandoning appeasement for confrontation, let alone defeating terrorists and their state sponsors. Acknowledging Iran’s aggression is largely inconceivable for Germany and its EU partners.
As for Russia and China, their refusal to take action against Iran stems in part from their strategic competition with the United States. If they admit that Iran is behind the attacks, like the Europeans and the Japanese, they will need to admit that the U.S. strategy of maximum pressure is reasonable and justified. Such an admission would strengthen the U.S. position.
Admitting Iran’s responsibility would empower the U.S. to diminish Iran’s capacity to continue committing acts of naval aggression, either directly or through its Houthi proxy. As Jim Hanson from the Security Studies Group suggested on Fox News, such action could include U.S. strikes against Houthi bases in Yemen or IRGC bases in Jask or other locations.
Given the behavior of U.S. allies and adversaries in light of Iran’s self-evident aggression against merchant tankers in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. cannot expect to operate with their support as it pursues its goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and denying the regime the means to continue sponsoring terrorism and aggression against the U.S. and its regional and global allies.
As a consequence, going forward, the Trump administration must continue to place all of its evidence of Iranian aggression on the table and continue to pursue its policy of maximum aggression. Unlike appeasement, the U.S.’s policy is based on reality. And so, unlike appeasement, it is a policy with the potential to actually succeed.