Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz were a sacrifice to lure Washington into a draw.
Iran’s botched operation in the Strait of Hormuz, in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy nearly got caught in the act of mining two tankers, brought the world to the brink of an accidental war. President Donald Trump’s policies have pushed Tehran to desperate measures, but Iran has shown that its long-term strategy is more than a match for Washington’s ill thought out campaign.
In a rare expression of faith in the CIA, President Trump said he agreed that Iran was behind the recent tanker attacks. The concurrence of other independent Western intelligence assessments with this conclusion indicates that it is almost certainly true. Why would Iran recklessly provoke the US when tensions are already high? The answer is that Iran has learned how to play Trump. The Persians have been playing chess for over 1000 years and know a thing or two about gambits. The Iranians are aware they cannot win an all-out war with the US and its allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — but they can prevent one. Iran’s strategy is sophisticated and nuanced. The tanker attacks were a sacrifice to lure Trump into a draw.
Trump reneged on the Iran nuclear deal because the president was seduced by the narrative that the Iranian regime, nuclear armed or not, is an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, and has to be overthrown. Pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a pretext for new aggression. Iran was abiding by the JCPOA and, among other stringent controls, had already exported 98% of its enriched uranium stockpile to Russia, guaranteeing its remaining uranium was enriched to no more than 3.67%. In others words, Iran neither presents a nuclear threat at the moment, nor in the foreseeable future.
The aim of the Trump-led alliance is to overthrow the Iranian regime, not to improve the nuclear agreement. Iran’s strategy is correspondingly simple: to preserve its security and thwart its enemies’ ability to overthrow it.
The first part of Tehran’s strategy is to underline how costly any confrontation with Iran might be. Iran cannot match US firepower, but it can fight asymmetrically. The IRGC has trained, armed and empowered a wide swath of proxy groups: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Shia fighting groups in Iraq (particularly Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Katab Hezbollah) and the Houthis in Yemen. The IRGC Quds Force also has a global capability to mount terrorist style attacks in third countries and, as we have seen, can attack ships in the straits.
The second part is Iran’s deployment of its diplomatic expertise to split Trump and his Middle Eastern allies from the European Union, China and Russia. This is where the skill of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shows. They present a face of reason, moderation, peacefulness and wanting to normalize relations. Rouhani gives speeches about Iran’s unwillingness to go to war and has engaged with the Qataris, Omanis and the Japanese to open back channel negotiations with the US to de-escalate the situation.
Iran’s diplomacy has a forward strategy in the region too. In addition to cementing alliances with Syria and Iraq, it has also sought to exploit the deep unease on the proverbial Arab Street about Trump’s “deal of the century” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This attempt to bribe the Palestinians to give up hope for an independent state and live on a reservation with borders drawn by Israel will not run. This is an Achilles heel for the dictators of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and Iran will seize it to drive a wedge between them and their subjects.
Which brings us to why Iran authorized the attack on the tankers. The reason was simple: to demonstrate that Iran can easily cripple shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. However, Iran did not want to give the US an immediate casus belli or trigger a shooting war by accident. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, authorized the IRGC navy to mount a covert and plausibly deniable operation, one to demonstrate Iran’s capability but leave no actual proof that Iran was the perpetrator — in other words, an operation Iran could deny without being proved a liar.
This did not go according to plan, as the IRGC made two errors: One of the limpet mines attached to the Japanese vessel Kokuka Courageous did not explode, and US overhead surveillance (which the US claimed was a helicopter in the area) was able to record footage of them retrieving the device. This was an error and could have resulted in an immediate attack on the IRGC team with unintended consequences. However, the lack of indisputable IRGC identification meant the Iran could still deny responsibility, although few believe them.
In fact this almost botched operation may have highlighted in bolder colors the danger of a military confrontation with Iran. Even Trump is now worrying that the march to war called for by UAE and Saudi crown princes, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohamed bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu and the zealots in the Trump administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would lead to disaster — and his own electoral suicide.
Five of Trump’s top military and diplomatic advisers, General Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, General HR McMaster, General John Kelly and now Patrick Shanahan, have already resigned or been sacked, with the defense secretary position vacant since last December. The US public is not prepared for war, and, after the sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no stomach for another. The UAE and Saudi Arabia could not and would not fight without the US. They too will have to rethink. Iran may be weakened, but it has played this game to a draw.
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