On June 13th 2019, images of two burning oil tankers in the waters of the Gulf of Oman – literally reignited – tensions between regional Gulf states and international powers including the United States, the United Kingdom and Iran. Tensions in the Gulf have remained close to breaking point as the U.S. places maximum economic pressure on Iran in an attempt to force the Iranian government to reopen talks regarding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action nuclear deal, which the U.S. pulled out of last year. In May 2019, four tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The timing of attacks was especially sensitive because it came as the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, held talks with the Iranian leadership in Tehran in an effort to find a basis for discussions between the U.S. and Iran. On Thursday, Japan’s trade ministry confirmed the two oil tankers carried “Japan-related” cargo.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described Thursday’s developments as “suspicious” and implied that the fault lay with a person or group trying to damage his country. Zarif stated, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” he tweeted, adding that the incidents took place while Abe was meeting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, “for extensive and friendly talks”. Whilst in the U.K. on an official tour, US President Donald Trump confirmed to British media that he was not seeking a confrontation with Iran, stating the U.S. intends to force direct talks with Iran so to negotiate the nation’s nuclear deal. Britain, at odds with Washington over how to handle Iran, acknowledges the US policy of applying maximum economic pressure is taking a huge toll on Iran and has pushed the country close to insolvency. U.K. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, questioned whether there was “credible evidence” that Iran had attacked the two ships. Corbyn tweeted, “Britain should act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation that began with US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement . . . Without credible evidence about the tanker attacks, the government’s rhetoric will only increase the threat of war.”
The attacks on the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday have sent the United States and Iran, two longtime adversaries, one step closer to all out war. The challenges faced are diplomatic and economic, as well as military. In 2018, the Trump administration has repeatedly sought to undermine the Iranian government on an international stage. Evidence of this can be documented in Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, dismantling the signature foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama. Furthermore, in April 2019 President Trump announced that he was designating a powerful arm of the Iranian military, its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time the US had declared a part of another nation’s army as a official threat. The designation imposed wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on the group, which carried out operations across the Middle East, including the military training of Arab Shiite militias. On May 5th 2019, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the United States was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East because of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” related to Iran. In the following week, the U.S. President announced a further 1500 U.S. troops would be sent to the Middle East – in support forces already present within the region. The events of June 13th thus serve as a further point on the upward trajectory of political tension between the U.S. and Iran.
The immediate aftermath of the tanker attacks was felt globally, as crude oil prices rose by more than 3%. It is clear that maximum economic pressure placed on Iran by the U.S., nor increased military presence in the region has made any significant roads to neutralize U.S.-Iranian tensions. A new strategy is required. The alliance forged between Iran and Russia may hold the key. As Russia’s involvement in Syria and the wider Middle East region has shown, Russian President Vladimir Putin has significant diplomatic kudos against regional parties. A triangular dialogue brokered between the U.S., Russia and Iran may allow for a more neutral, mutually compromising political structuring, particularly for the U.S. in the Middle East.