The explosions were bigger and the damage more extensive. But the message and its means of delivery have some similarities.
Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman caused jitters in global markets and unease across a region that has been bracing for conflict throughout much of the year. As with the earlier attacks on 12 May, news of the latest strikes was again broken by media outlets aligned to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, who broadcast images of the attacks within minutes of them taking place.
Pictures of both ships ablaze spoke volumes about what is at stake in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, as a regional player withering under ever tightening sanctions stares down a global superpower determined to impose its will.
Even the hint of obstruction in the strait of Hormuz, where ships pass each other like cars on a four lane motorway, is enough to upset oil markets. Frequent, and seemingly random, bombings of tankers, however, takes fears over energy security to levels not seen since the tanker wars, a byproduct of the Iran-Iraq war of the mid-80s, which sunk or damaged 543 ships in nearby waters and caused three years of turmoil in energy markets. By Thursday afternoon, two large shipping companies had suspended bookings from the Gulf oil ports.
The standoff between Iran and the US, which has brewed over the course of Donald Trump’s administration, has typically played out on terra firma. In Iraq, Iran has consolidated its presence at the expense of Washington, which has little to show for its efforts to reorientate the country in its favour. In Lebanon Iran’s near dominance of the political space has taken place at Saudi Arabia’s – and Washington’s – expense.
On seas and oceans US interests – and those of its allies – are even more vulnerable, with tankers carrying nearly one third of the world’s oil, or derivatives of it, passing within a few miles of the Iranian coastline as they travel from the strait of Hormuz to all points of the industrialised world. [Continue reading…]
Tensions in the Gulf are an eerie echo of the tanker war that erupted in the late eighties during the eight-year conflict between Iraq and Iran. The tanker war was launched in 1984, when Iraq attacked Iran’s oil terminal and oil tankers at Kharg Island, in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran responded by striking tankers—initially from Kuwait and later from other nations—that ferried Iraqi oil. In 1987, as the tanker war threatened to disrupt global oil supplies, the Reagan Administration intervened. It re-registered Kuwaiti ships under the American flag, which allowed the U.S. Navy to provide military protection. Operation Earnest Will became the largest U.S. naval convoy operation since the Second World War. It included carrier battle groups from the Navy, Air Force awacs surveillance planes, and U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. At one point, some thirty ships were deployed to escort tankers from the volatile Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. intervention to protect tankers also led to direct military action with Iran. In September, 1987, U.S. aircraft spotted the Iran Ajr pushing mines into Gulf waters. Helicopter gunships opened fire. By the time the attack was over, four Iranian sailors were dead, the rest of the crew had abandoned ship (and were picked up by the U.S. Navy), and the ship was scuttled.
The timing of the U.S. attack was particularly painful for Iran. Khamenei, who was then Iran’s President, was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly—the first visit by a top revolutionary leader since the 1979 upheaval that overthrew the shah. His trip followed the first covert contacts between Washington and Tehran in what became known as the arms-for-hostage swap during the Reagan Administration. In 1986, top White House officials led a secret mission to Iran. Although that diplomacy collapsed, Khamenei’s trip in 1987 was designed to signal Tehran’s willingness to engage with the world. Instead, the visit was overtaken by Iran’s mining misadventure.