Whether it is in restarting some enrichment of nuclear materials from its reactors, or actions to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz through which a fifth of world oil is transported, Iran has been put in a position where some measured retaliation is necessary in order to clearly demonstrate the benefits of peace.
There is often an ostentatious air to saying in Latin what could be said in one’s own language, perhaps all the more so in the area of international relations, and certainly when everyone else is also disposed towards doing so with the same air of gravitas. That being said, as oil tankers again come under attack in the Gulf of Oman, two months after incidents in the nearby Straits of Hormuz, few people are resisting the urge to ask in the aftermath, cui bono? Who benefits?
The simple answer, really, is nobody. Tanker crews had to be evacuated, burning petrochemicals billowed smoke into the environment and sea, and as the US and Saudi Arabia quickly rushed to blame Iran, releasing a blurry video they claimed was evidence, the population of Iran and the wider region will be forced to endure a further ratcheting-up of tension and war anxiety. Further afield, the ripple effects travelled to European capitals where it seems to be dawning on even right-wing politicians that the Iraq War, on some level, set in motion the domino effect that caused a refugee crisis and a surge of hard-right ethnonationalism. In such a field of outcomes, it is hard to suggest that anyone is advantaged by the attack.
A range of circumstantial evidence rejects the idea that Iran was behind the events. They took place on the day Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, arrived in Tehran as part of efforts to smooth relations between Iran and the United States. That one of the tankers in the attacks was Japanese-operated would seem to make the choice of the target as unlikely as the timing. The second tanker was a Norwegian vessel owned by shipping magnate John Fredriksen, who earned renown for continuing to support Iran by shipping its oil throughout the Iran-Iraq war. The supposed evidence of Iranian culpability, video footage purporting to show the Iranian navy removing an explosive device from the tanker, has been rejected as inadequate by a number of European states. Owners of the Japanese vessel, meanwhile, have said that the US account of the incident is inaccurate, with reports oscillating between the suggestions that a mine was used after it was initially claimed that the explosion was caused by a torpedo.
Whatever the disputed version of events, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Israel too, will no doubt be pleased to see the Trump administration again escalate its rhetoric and threats of war against Iran. The alignment of these interests and increasing bellicosity from the US has – as was the case with the April incidents – been enough to prompt speculation that the Saudis and Emiratis staged the attack themselves. But whatever the designs of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, or Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman, increasing risk of conflict is not in the interests of either the Saudi or Israeli people. A war against Iran has the potential to visit carnage upon the Middle East that would be many times the magnitude of that one seen in Iraq. UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned of the high risk of unintended escalation between two conflicting sides that now have historically poor levels of trust and communication channels.
While the regimes in Riyadh and Jerusalem seemingly had much to gain from the attacks, there are potential upsides for the Iranians, too. Donald Trump’s decision to break the multilateral Iran Deal is putting the country under enormous financial and social pressures, leaving its leadership in need of ways to demonstrate that the US cannot wreck the efforts of international diplomacy without consequences. Whether it is in restarting some enrichment of nuclear materials from its reactors, or actions to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz through which a fifth of world oil is transported, Iran has been put in a position where some measured retaliation is necessary in order to clearly demonstrate the benefits of peace.
One little-mentioned detail about the effects of the attacks, whoever committed them, was its remarkably small impact on the oil price. Despite a sudden jump, and certain increases in future shipping and insurance costs, the incident left the oil price itself mostly unaltered at around $60 a barrel, an indication of recent oversupply and the extent to which US shale oil has upended the global market. In some respects, this process, moving oil supply away from its historic concentration in the Middle East – if harnessed correctly – has some long-term potential to help lessen tensions in the region.
As the incident takes its place inside a new normal of precarity in the Middle East, there is for now little obvious clarity surrounding who indeed did benefit from the tanker attacks. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the rising climate of violence can be traced back to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. For those seeking a return to some greater stability, and even the possibility of normalised ties between countries perilously close to one another and encircled by US military bases, that is where all serious efforts for peace must now turn.