Maritime implications of Trump’s threats against Iran
The US is accepting GCC arguments that Iran is indeed behind the Houthi missile program
Last week, US President Donald Trump’s administration all but declared pending military action against Iran to push the Islamic Republic out of Arab lands. Trump, National Security Council Advisor Michael Flynn and US Defense Secretary James Mattis are not going to tolerate Iranian harassment at sea any more. The suicide boat attack against a Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen was the last straw for the new administration.
Iranian assistance to the Houthis in Yemen is now front and center. The United States is accepting GCC arguments that Iran is indeed behind the Houthi missile program and well as backing Houthis fighting against Saudi Arabia with almost daily intrusions into the Kingdom’s two provinces, Jizan and Najran, America’s toolkit is about to open for sending a strong message to Tehran.
Besides seeing Iran’s hand behind Houthi attacks on the UAE’s HSV SWIFT and the USS Mason in October 2016. The Trump administration and the GCC see Iranian naval expansion into the Red Sea as alarming. Iranian ships are notorious for acting as platforms for maritime intelligence but also part of a system of weapons and supplies delivery to the Houthis.
According to a GCC official, “Iranian missile technology is being delivered to the Houthis. This must be stop and we hope the Americans will do something about this behavior.” The US Defense Department is considering more patrols and airstrikes in Yemen, designed at preventing Iranian weapons from being delivered to the Houthis.
“Conflict talk” against Iran occurred in the 2000s and in 2012 specifically with some moments very close to authorizing a US and/or Israeli attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure. But this new round of DC-Tehran shouting has important implications.
A maritime clash is also part of the Trump transactional approach. Naval exchanges are likely given that volume of harassment attacks by Iran and its proxies against US and Arab naval shipsDr. Theodore Karasik
There are a number of Trump cards that are now in play. First, Trump is trying to get Iranian concessions by listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the terrorist list and not ripping up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear treaty at this time.
Second is a message to Russia. The Trump administration is floating the idea to Moscow to trade Iran for Ukraine in a bold geo-political transactional move with the Kremlin. Russia is concerned by escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran and sees itself as a negotiator which is pleasing to GCC ears.
Third, the Trump administration wants to show that Washington is back in the region so they can help manage the Middle East conflict which means controlling Iraq and jointly operating with Arab partners to push back Iranian proxies.
A maritime clash is also part of the Trump transactional approach. Naval exchanges are likely given that volume of harassment attacks by Iran and its proxies against US and Arab naval ships.
It is quite possible that the US and its Arab allies want to check the readiness of Iranian forces who are spread out across Arab lands and losing over a thousand commanders and soldiers of the IRGC and the Basij. At this juncture there is no stability in MENA without some type of American military action. This is where the prospect of a “Tanker War II” comes into play.
What will a Tanker War II look like?
The first Tanker War occurred from 1980 to 1984. Attacks on shipping by both sides led to over 500 vessels suffering damage and hundreds of seafarers being killed. The Tanker War was seen as having the potential both to affect world oil exports and prices and to draw other countries into the conflict.
The attack on the USS Stark and the actions by the USS Vincennes are reminders of what may happen next. A Tanker War II will take a different shape, and it’s the impact on regional psychology which will be dramatically different in today hyper social media environment.
US National Security Advisor Flynn’s warning that Iran has been “put on notice” over Iran’s aggressive behavior such as missile launches is adding fuel to the specter of a Tanker War II. This type of language is exactly what the GCC states want to hear from America: They want forceful US language that carries a big stick unlike the Obama Administration.
According to a Jordanian official “the GCC is losing two wars because of Iran: Yemen and Syria. They need America to be tough on Iran. The GCC sees IRGC existence in the area between Oman, Hormuz, and Bahrain. Other Iranian troops are covering other areas in the Levant. Thus any clash between the US and Iran will be between Hormuz and Manama in the Gulf.”
Best case scenario
The best-case scenario is that any confrontation is short and any damage to shipping returns to normal after 30 days and not last four years like the first Tanker War. But in terms of timeframe and assessment of severity of a Tanker War II, there are a number of potential escalatory outcomes. Any extended closure of maritime shipping will be costly.
Again, we are looking at Iranian forces will most certainly try to block the Strait of Hormuz and paralyze international shipping. It would wreak havoc with the world’s oil supply that would shoot oil prices higher that ironically provide some budgetary relief to OPEC and non-OPEC countries.
Tehran will do its best to hinder US and allied naval operations by making it engaged in prolonged mine countermeasure operations. Thankfully, the US and the international community are ready for this potential Iranian action through several years of multilateral drills, IMCMEX.
The Trump Administration is moving toward a confrontation with the Islamic Republic that the GCC sees as necessary to alleviate Tehran’s dangerous regional onslaught.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.