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The oil tanker attacks could make a US-Iran military showdown inevitable, experts warn

Business Insider | Jun 14, 2019, 02.57AM IST

oil tanker gulf of oman fire

AP Photo/ISNA)

The Front Altair oil tanker on fire in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

  • After two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, which the Trump administration has blamed on Iran, there are increased fears of a conflict between the US and Iran.
  • Experts warn that the prospect of a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran is now a "certainty" and that Americans in the region could soon be targeted by Iranian proxies.
  • "I would assess the certainty of a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran...in which one side or the other strikes national assets or national territory belonging to the other," Aaron David Miller, who advised the State Department on the Middle East for years, told INSIDER.
  • Visit INSIDER's homepage for more stories.

Two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, causing a surge in oil prices and raising fears of a conflict between the US and Iran amid heightened tensions in the region.

Thursday's attacks occurred in an important waterway through which 30% of the world's oil supply passes, and represents a major escalation in the showdown between Washington and Tehran that could wreak havoc on the global economy. It also came after several attacks on oil tankers in the same area in May, which US officials blamed on Iran.

Experts warn that the attack is a sign of what's to come from Iran as it seeks to punish the US for sanctions that are pummeling its economy. Some experts also say that Americans in the region could be targeted by Iranian proxies, and that prospect of a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran now appears to be a "certainty."

'They covered their tracks'

No one has claimed responsibility for Thursday's incident, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Iran.

"Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday. "No economic sanctions entitle the Islamic Republic to attack innocent civilians, disrupt global oil markets and engage in nuclear blackmail."

Rockford Weitz, professor and director of the Maritime Studies Program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told INSIDER that Pompeo wouldn't have "come out so forcefully" if he didn't have strong evidence pointing to the Iranians being responsible.

Read more: The Navy has reportedly found a smoking gun as the US blames Iran for the latest tanker attack that threatens the global oil market

But Weitz added, "Whatever part of Iran's government had any role in these tanker attacks, they covered their tracks to the best of their abilities."

One of the tankers attacked was Japanese-owned, and the incident occurred as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - who has a close relationship with President Donald Trump - was in Tehran to try and mitigate tensions between Iran and the US.

Weitz said the timing of Abe's visit and the tanker attacks are not a "coincidence" and it's almost as if the Iranians put on a "show" for him. Roughly 80% of Japan's oil comes from the Middle East and travels through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel linking the Persian Gult to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

Iran appears to be trying to get Japan unsettled about oil prices, which rose 4% after Thursday's attacks, so that it pressures Trump to ease up on the sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy. But Weitz questioned the wisdom of this strategy.

"I don't think it helps [Iran] to saber rattle and try to get the Japanese super nervous and pressure Trump. That's not what's going to do it for Trump...I think what's at work here is, in many ways, a testing of the waters," Weitz said, noting that the US is not as reliant on foreign oil as it was in previous decades.

Weitz also said the spike in oil prices is likely only a "temporary" response to Thursday's incident, and that if Iran really wanted to cause turmoil it would have to stage attacks on a near daily basis - a route that would most likely trigger a global response that would be catastrophic for the Iranian government.

'Expect the Iranians to up the ante at some point'

Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, echoed these sentiments and said Iran is lashing out at US sanctions - particularly those linked to its oil.

"The Iranian strategy is twofold: to make it difficult for their Gulf neighbors to export oil as long as Iran is prevented from doing so; and to retaliate against what [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif] referred to as US 'economic terrorism.' These attacks are one means to achieve the first objective," Slim told INSIDER, adding that she expects them to "continue doing so as long as the US does not retaliate with force."

But Slim is also skeptical that such attacks will help convince the Trump administration to "abandon" its maximum pressure strategy. "They do not increase the costs of this strategy for the US," Slim said.

As Iran becomes increasingly desperate to find relief from sanctions, it could begin targeting Americans in the Middle East.

Read more: Photos and video show flames, ash, and charring on oil tanker after suspected torpedo attack in Gulf of Oman

"I expect the Iranians to up the ante at some point and target US assets in the region," Slim said, adding that the "kidnapping of US citizens by Iranian proxies is one tool in the Iranian toolbox." She said this would likely occur in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen where American NGO workers and journalists are working in "insecure environments where pro-Iran militias enjoy a freedom of maneuvering."

Slim said that if Iran goes down this path, it would elevate the "political costs" of the maximum pressure strategy for Trump.

'I would assess the certainty of a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran'

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center who advised six secretaries of state, said the Trump administration's efforts to "undermine" and "destroy" the Iranian economy is working.

In this context, Miller told INSIDER that Iran is now trying to signal to the Americans that they have the "capacity to be unpleasant and cause a measure of pain."

Miller said we're witnessing an "unraveling" that began when Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The president has said his goal is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and has in recent weeks signaled a desire to hold talks with the Iranians to negotiate a new nuclear deal, but after Thursday's incident said it's "too soon to even think about making a deal." The Iranians, who for the moment appear to still be in compliance with the JCPOA, have also said they're not interested in talks.

Miller said that with the US and Iran are now "drifting," and the big question is, what direction will they drift in?

"I would assess the certainty of a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran...in which one side or the other strikes national assets or national territory belonging to the other," Miller continued. "The reality is that things get messy when there is urgency."

Ellen Ioanes contributed reporting.

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