The blast on the Israeli-owned Helios Ray ship in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz about two weeks ago was the first scrimmage in the critical battle of interpretations that ensued.
While Israeli and Iranian officials are exchanging accusations on Twitter and in the media, anyone who connects the dots can realize that Iran was behind the mysterious explosion, since it has the motive, ability, and access.
Informed sources claim that Iran chose the maritime arena for clashes a long time ago because it has a double advantage, the first is its advanced capabilities to attack maritime targets from the coast, and the second is the potential to threaten free movement on the routes of cargo ships, which are valuable targets to destabilize trade exchange between Arab and Western countries.
Iran has not officially claimed responsibility for this attack, but it is the main suspect because it carried similar activities against foreign ships in the Persian Gulf last year or the year before. The threat posed by Iran might be even more substantial if it decides to use proxies like the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen who may threaten Bab al-Mandeb.
This time, Israel was the target, but the message was not directed to Tel Aviv alone. Iran intended to deliver this resonant message to all countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council which signed a reconciliation agreement a month ago after a four-year rift. All Gulf countries are aware of the Iranian threat, which became even clearer after this incident.
As anticipated, instead of assuming responsibility, Iran denied "Israel’s unfounded allegations that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked an Israeli-owned cargo ship near the Gulf of Oman last month.” Iran’s UN ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in a letter to the UN Security Council that the incident “has all the characteristics of a complicated false flag operation by actors in order to pursue their malign policies and to advance their illegitimate objectives.”
Ravanchi was responding to a letter to the council from Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan, in which he accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of planting explosives on the Israeli-owned cargo ship in international waters near the Gulf of Oman on February 25.
As US President Joe Biden is forming his new government, he is expected to slowly shape his foreign policy through actions and words. This is a trial period, and the new policy will determine how far Biden is willing to go to resume negotiations with Iran, and the weight he gives to the human rights issue in Iran compared to his relations with the Gulf countries.
So, while it remains unclear how this superpower will determine its policy, the Gulf states will have to rely on themselves.
Interestingly, the US Republican Party stated that it will “reimpose all Iran sanctions lifted by Biden, as soon as his administration leaves office.”
This might limit how far the Biden administration will go in its negotiations with Iran.
Gulf states are well-aware of the Iranian threats facing them on the other side of the Gulf. Therefore, they must set a clear strategy that can withstand new decisions by any new US administrations.
These shifts undermine the regional balance and force the region every time to draft new policies that do not necessarily align with the interests of Gulf states.
Given the expected political uncertainty in the coming months, the Gulf states can be flexible regarding anticipated political and strategic opportunities, risks, and threats. It is critical now for the Gulf States to draft a consistent and clear policy to prepare themselves for any scenario, be it peace with Tehran to keep up with the emerging new trend, or a confrontation in light of the current situation as Iran poses a great threat to their stability.
A Western expert in Middle East politics told me that a clear statement from the Gulf states as a unified front will make it easier for them to insert themselves in the balance of power that is taking shape. They could either play a decisive mediator role between Tehran and Washington or be considered a featherweight whose demands are not taken seriously in the agreement to be drafted with Iran.
The annual Gulf summit held in Riyadh last January was extremely optimistic as it announced lifting the blockade against Qatar and opening its borders with Saudi Arabia. However, statements about the importance of Gulf unity in the face of current challenges must stand the test of reality, in light of increasing threats to regional stability, especially since the Houthis noticeably doubled their raids on Saudi Arabia after the Gulf reconciliation.
Brigadier-General Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force, openly acknowledged that Iran backs Houthi attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia. Last Friday, at the Ayat al-Thaqafi complex in Mashhad, he said that these militias launched 18 precise operations against Saudi Arabia in less than 10 days.
Qaani did not only threaten Saudi Arabia as he also addressed the US when he said, “When I tell them [US and Israel] that we will break their bones, you will hear the sound later,” and he also used the Palestinian cause to menace Israel, stating that “Today, Israel has built 6-meter-high walls around itself that will collapse.”
He maintained that Iran would continue to support armed groups all over the world, describing them as the forces of resistance against “global arrogance,” and stressing that these Iran-hired forces will confront “armed arrogant parties around the world.”
Iran is anxiously following the Gulf unity agreement. It has benefited more than anyone from the Gulf crisis in recent years, so it is extremely concerned about a potential Gulf unity and normalization agreements with Israel. To confirm Iran’s concerns, the Gulf states should continue to loudly voice their opposition to Iranian activities, especially Iran’s regional interference in the internal affairs of Gulf countries, by fueling ethnic conflicts and menacing national security.
The Gulf states will undoubtedly show their unity and take the required measures to assert their presence on the map, and they will not accept being the victims of the explosion that could sink the ship.
The US should also watch out for the movements and goals of Iran and its allies. For instance, Iran, Russia, and China, joined by India as well, recently conducted joint naval drills, with the public goal of “establishing alliances between friendly countries.”
Deputy Navy Commander for Coordination Rear Admiral Hamzeh Ali Kaviani stated that these exercises will highlight the superior capabilities of the Iranian armed forces in “carrying out operations at sea and in open waters” (indirect confirmation of Iran's involvement in the blast of the Israeli cargo ship).
He added, “Iran's navy is powerful and has the ability to establish security in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the northern Indian Ocean, and wherever Iran has interests.” Iran affirmed that it would respond with all its “defensive” capabilities to face any move against it, especially by the US and its allies.
While the US is considering reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, it should remember that exporting the Iranian revolution means eliminating all American presence in the most strategic region in the world, which controls the critical routes of oil, its transit, and global trade.
Iran does not believe in the concept of a state because this concept will be the end to its existence and the annihilator of its plans. Iran wants to remain a revolution to destabilize the entire world, not just the Gulf countries and the Middle East.
This should be included in the discussion of the foreign policy to be adopted by the Biden administration, which is also concerned with confronting Russian interference and Chinese expansion.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.