Iran: tanker smuggling fuel had been seized.

(Reuters) UK government seeking further information on seized foreign tanker reports: spokeswoman.

(FARS) IRGC Seizes Ship with 1mln Liters of Fuel Cargo Smuggled from Iran, But Denies Seizing Any Other Foreign Ship. Quoting,

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Navy stopped a foreign oil tanker in Lark Island in the Persian Gulf which was carrying 1mln liters of smuggled fuel from Iran, the IRGC said Thursday, but meantime, dismissed seizure of any other foreign vessel as claimed by the foreign media several days ago.

Once again, the name of the ship is unspecified. This is almost certainly the MT Riah. It looks like the Iranians have got their story straight. Perhaps instead of a ring job, they’ll give the ship a paint job.

Iran has decided that anything that will raise maritime insurance rates is beneficial to their cause. And what country can resist free gas?



Missing UAE tanker; Defining the Game

Edit 6/17/2019, 2:50 PM EST. A point added, highlighted in red. Read down.

(CBC) Iran says its navy came to aid of missing oil tanker Riah as tensions mount in Gulf. Quoting,

“An international oil tanker was in trouble due to a technical fault in the Persian Gulf,” spokesman Abbas Mousavi told the semi-official news agency ISNA.

“After receiving a request for assistance, Iranian forces approached it and used a tugboat to pull it towards Iranian waters for the necessary repairs to be carried out,…”

The tanker is a mini, only 190 feet long, said to be used for local UAE transfer of petroleum. But the UAE denies ownership or crew;  (Khaleej Times) Oil tanker MT Riah not owned by UAE. Quoting,

A UAE official said on Tuesday that the oil tanker MT Riah is not owned by the UAE.

 “The tanker in question is neither UAE owned nor operated.”…”It does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call.”


  • The MT Riah was certainly hijacked by Iran. The absence of a distress call, and deactivation of the tanker’s transponder are evidence enough.
  • The tanker was an attractive  target because the small size and value implied reduced chance of paramilitary presence.
  • The selection was also based upon the pattern of usage, intra-UAE transport, which resulted in the assumption of UAE ownership. The Iranians were wrong.
  • There was little or no representation of Gulf  ethnicities among the crew, or they would have been used as chips.
  • The captive vessel presents no opportunity for Iran to pressure the Gulf alliance.
  • The failure of Iran to name the tanker, crew, and mechanical defect  indicates  control by higher echelons of power,  which have not settled on the “story.” Internal conflict along secular-religious lines is possible.
  • The owners will probably get away with a ripoff repair fee.

The Iranians bungled, giving us just a taste of things-to-come. We have a breather to meditate on the main problem. Quoting  Iranian boats attempted to seize British tanker,

The Iranians are doubtless studying this [Gen. Dunford’s] statement, looking for space in which they can operate. It offers Iran local superiority (see Lanchester’s Laws) that could not be achieved against a unified military response. It fails to accord Iran respect for the strength that comes from desperation.

The Western response may follow the  course of the four-year initial inability  to deal with Somali pirates. The slowness of the EU learning curve in dealing with the ancient menace of piracy was striking. Paying off the pirates encouraged more piracy. while jurisdictional issues of international law and reluctance to use force paralyzed punishment and deterrence.

Iran is far more resourceful than Somali pirates. There is no simple prescriptive solution, because this is a game. Games require both strategy and tactics. In the past, problems such as these have been simulated by State and DoD in the form of board-game simulations played  by specialist students of the various actors.

A brief description of such a game is given by Miles Copeland, CIA plank-owner, in his book, The Game of Nations.





Afghanistan Signals; Reflections on U.S. Policy

I wrote this on July 30, 2018. For some reason, I never hit the “publish” button. It seems fresh as a daisy, so here it is:

(Reuters) ‘Very positive signals’ after U.S., Taliban talks: sources.

Part of this blog is about the skill of prediction, which deeply involves recognizing previous situations that analogize with the present. The news sites present snapshots of the present, leaving us vulnerable to all our hopes and fears. Sloppy analogy with past can leave us vulnerable to  our hopes and fears. Carefully drawn analogies, evaluated in number and quality,  bind the future to the past. So what is the quality of historical analogy available for the four top issues?

  • Iran: Current Iran approaches have limited but useful analogies with the neoconservative approach to  Iraq in 2003.
  • Russia: Limited analogy exists to expansionism dating to the 18th century, and to balance-of-power policies.
  • China: There is no precedent for the rise of China.
  • Afghanistan: Numerous, extensive analogies with  Vietnam exist.

With Afghanistan, as with Vietnam, it can be hard for the best minds to differentiate between the desired outcomes foreign policy goals, and the work of prediction, when we try to exclude confirmation bias. Like most Western readers, I would prefer to imagine the outcome of an Afghanistan with a civil government that has at least limited secular, inclusive aspects. The situation of Pakistan, which is more a failed state than a model, would actually be progress in Afghanistan.

So let’s start with Vietnam. As painful as the experience was,  the lesson lived in memory for little more than a generation. The goals of our fathers for Vietnam were fairly modest. The  corrupt rule of South Vietnam’s elite was supported because, so it was thought,

  • The doctrine of Containment of world communism required it.
  • Absent the lock-down of a rigid ideology, South Vietnam would continue to evolve.
  • The goals were achievable.

A magnificent book recounts  the cautionary tale. The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, documents and dissects. The best thinking of the time, employing the best tools of the time, statistics, estimation theory, game theory, and operations research, could not predict the failure of the massive U.S. military and logistical footprint to defeat a small, economically primitive country with an army of foot soldiers.

At the time, it was countered that the Vietnam debacle was the result of political constraints on the scope of military operations. But if this was so, the best and the brightest toiled on, each working on an assigned part of the problem. The sheer size of the effort, and the variety of approaches and methods used, resulted in  many different measures of success:  body counts, village pacifications, battles won, positions held, enemy presence, and so forth. But out of all this, there never developed a coherent estimate of what the future would hold.

Specialists in unconventional warfare, such as William Colby, later director of the CIA, were influenced by the spirit of the southerners they worked with.  Negative opinions were voiced by those who knew the leadership of the South. Those whose priority of geopolitics made failure unacceptable retained powerful influence over the institutional voice until the 1968 Tet Offensive. Paradoxically, a military victory for the U.S. caused the vox populi to prevail over the custodians of U.S. foreign policy, beginning the process of disengagement.

Vietnam remained a powerful lesson for just a bit more than a generation. But the 2003 Iraq war, which might have succeeded as a surgical intervention, was given a huge remit by a group then known as the neoconservatives, to catalyze the development of liberal democracy in the Middle East. The similarities with South Vietnam in the 1960’s:

  • Intervention with a remit of social change well beyond the scope of military victory and occupation.
  • Porous borders through which enemy supply lines cannot be effectively interdicted.
  • Sanctuaries in neighboring countries.
  • Asymmetric warfare; the enemy accepts losses much greater than acceptable by Western forces, without strategic distress.
  • Economies restricted to subsistence agriculture and opium.
  • Village and clan based societies with little desire for services of a central government.

The last element is most important. What is the minimum government that can bind a country together?  From Trump Wants to Fire U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, a list:

  • Raise revenue by taxation.
  • Use at least some of the taxes to provide services.
  • Facilitate commerce.
  • The services provided justify the taxes enough for popular acquiescence.

These are the minimums of good government, when it is a symbiont with the population. With less than that,  a government becomes a protection racket.

In South Vietnam, as in Afghanistan today, there was too little to tax, and too little in the way of services to provide. We like to think of happy villages with modern medical care and, eventually, labor saving devices. But without a tax base, a government cannot acquire the monopoly of force that underpins the rule of law.

If all six factors hold, this implies that while Western intervention can maintain the current situation indefinitely, the Taliban will take over on exit. No amount of diplomatic paper can change this; the men with guns, powered by a religious ideology, win this game.






Iranian boats attempted to seize British tanker

(CNN) Iranian boats attempted to seize British tanker. Quoting,

Five armed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats unsuccessfully tried to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf Wednesday, according to two US officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

(Reuters) Iranian boats ‘harass’ British tanker in the Gulf: U.S. officials. Quoting,

Five boats believed to belong to Iranian Revolutionary Guards approached a British oil tanker in the Gulf on Wednesday and asked it to stop in Iranian waters close by, but withdrew after a British warship warned them, U.S. officials said.

There is an inexplicable difference in wording, highlighted in red. The apparent timidity of the Iranian force should not be assumed as a constant of this problem. Five boats is well short of the swarms Iran has practiced with.  This could have been a

  • Low level initiative, part of the ethos of the IRGC, in response to nonspecific clerical encouragement.
  • Psychological test. In the early years of Somali piracy, active defense was discouraged by the mindset of shippers, insurers, and an overly legalistic EU viewpoint. The Iranian goal: to assess persistence of the attitude.
  • Tactical test, though much more cautious than the Dieppe Raid of 1942,  to precede a like assault.

If the mullahs direct  the IRGC to do what they are chartered to do, which encompasses high casualty tactics, verging on suicide, they may snag a tanker:

  • The large size of a tanker creates a baffle, blocking the weapons of an escort positioned on the opposite side from   Iranian boats.
  • During maneuver of an escort,  baffles lasting a few seconds result when a 30mm gun  cannot be brought to bear. During this brief interval, when the escort is partly exposed, RPG attacks are possible  against an armored gun mount, crew-served weapons, or the bridge.
  • The 30mm gun mounts limit how far down the guns can be pointed down, the “depression limit”. So another baffle exists close to the escort.
  •  Iran planners  may consider an attack with simultaneous approaches to both sides of the tanker accompanied by a single escort, to have bearable cost. One half of the force is sacrificed.
  • We can assume British forces were on board the tanker. This attempt may have been a probe for information about their deployment.

Dunford’s statement echoes Trump’s caution to distinguish between the nuclear issue, and the “tanker war” issue. Quoting  (CNN),

“Escorting in the normal course of events would be done by countries who have the same flag so a ship that is flagged by a particular country would be escorted by that country and I think what the United States can provide is domain awareness, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and then coordination and patrols for other ships that would be in the area would be largely coalition ships.”

The Iranians are doubtless studying this statement, looking for space in which they can operate. It offers Iran local superiority (see Lanchester’s Laws) that could not be achieved against a unified military response. It fails to accord Iran respect for the strength that comes from desperation.

Oil tankers mostly have flags of convenience. With 464 tankers, is the Liberian Navy up to Dunford’s idea? Or the Navy of Panama, with 528 tankers? Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me an oar. In case they’re thinking of chain-sawing a rowboat in two, I have these immortal words of advice from Alfred Thayer Mahan, (which he never said):

Never divide the fleet.







Brits Seize Iranian Tanker at Gibraltar; Will Iran Take hostages?

This explores the potential of hostage taking by Iran. It has occurred before.

In 1979,  the former Shah of Iran, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi was admitted to the U.S. by Jimmy Carter, for cancer treatment in New York. Iran demanded the return of the Shah to face trial and inevitable execution. The U.S. refusal was the proximal cause of what followed, though, as with everything involving crowd psychology, one doesn’t find a primer cord linking events.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  Ayatollah Khomeini originally instructed that the students were to be thrown out. But as asylum for the Shah was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini used the student action  to create an utterly polar adversity with the U.S. This was highly beneficial to consolidation of power, and the implementation of Khomeini’s singular addition to Shia Islam, Velâyat-e Faqih, a form of Islamic theocracy.

Thus began the longest hostage crisis in history: 55 hostages for 444 days, until January 20, 1981. U.S. power was helpless to intervene; protracted negotiations ensued; the hostages were released the day after Jimmy Carter left office. Who won?

Western historians see no gains of substance  by Iran.  It seems likely that Saddam Hussein was emboldened by the U.S.-Iran freeze to start the Iran-Iraq War. Hence in Western eyes, the episode was intensely self-damaging. But our logic is not that of revolutionaries. In their minds at that time, the hostage crisis eased the task of purging and suppressing lingering sympathies towards the West.  In comparison to how many executions would have otherwise been required, they may still congratulate themselves.

Iran’s counter strategy to U.S. oil sanctions has been asymmetrical, deniable, and/or nonlethal. While Iran’s ability to execute this strategy has not diminished, the seizure by the UK of the Grace 1 may indicate to Iran a failure of this strategy to support foreign policy goals. The Grace 1 was seized for violation of EU sanctions against Syria, not U.S. sanctions against Iran,  inspiring Iran’s threat to seize a British tanker.  (CNN) Official warns Tehran could seize UK oil tanker if Iranian ship not released. But since the West is the enemy, it’s a distinction of little import.

With the preparation implied by weeks of heightened U.S. presence in the Gulf, this would likely result in a fight. How much of a fight is unpredictable, since the faster trigger finger wins.  Quoting Arleigh Burke, who gained fame as a destroyer captain, “The difference between a good and great officer is about ten seconds.

If the sanctions are maintained, regime change will not result. But as with the individual, any society, under extreme pressure, tends to shed the niceties of civilization, regressing to earlier forms — the forms of childhood, or revolution. To date, Iran has relied on crudely technological methods to create a calculus of physical damage favorable to  diplomacy, without success.

Under psychological regression, these methods will be  augmented  by methods which applied to the directly to humans, exacting a price without any technology at all.  Hence, hostage-taking, domination of the nightly news, national agony and political ruin that Jimmy Carter can relate in the first person. Most of the Iranian actors are still around.

On the heels of Iranian limpet mine attacks on tankers in the Gulf, and the drone shoot-down, I can’t help but smile.  But note, the seizure of the Grace 1, making the ship a “material hostage”, may inspire Iran as a blurry analogy to human hostage taking.

The political structure of Iraq is so porous, hostages can be opportunistically grabbed and exfiltrated to Iran with little difficulty. In a twist that might bring a wicked smile to some, hostages could be detained at the site of the 1979 hostage crisis, the former U.S. Embassy in Iran, now an IRGC training center.

Don’t let it happen.


Iran Shoots Down MQ-4C Triton Drone

The unit cost of the  MQ-4C Triton is about $183M, more than an F-35, approximating the cost of an F-22. It is a very expensive airplane. It is not a stealth system. The loss exposes a vulnerability in the method of deployment. Although lives are not at risk, cumulative losses would represent a significant hit to the defense budget.

So the loss must be addressed, either by substitution of a different surveillance system, or by deterrent action.

This is an opportunity to review the argument for deterrent in the form of a deniable response, as discussed in Iran Fires Second Shot in New Tanker War; Counter Strategies? A suitable response would be:

  • Deniable by the U.S.
  • Embarrassing for Iran to admit.
  • Expensive to Iran, emphasizing symmetry of loss.



CNN Editorial, Meredith McCarroll, Anthony Bourdain listened; Appalachia’s Three Percent

Appalachia, “heartbreaking and beautiful”, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, is the subject of Meredith McCarroll’s CNN editorial, “Anthony Bourdain listened to the voices ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ ignored.” She leaves the phrase, absent allusion to social decay, untouched by criticism. About Bourdain, she writes, “When he said, “But this is not a poverty porn show. Do not pity the people here,” I listened up.” Yet McCarroll’s attitudes, encoded in the habits of narrative writing, are hard to parse. Implicit to her living-it point of view is a scale grading to counterpoint, with the mid-scale note of Bourdain, the sympathetic the-outsider. Her counterpoint is J.D. Vance.

Her vulnerability comes “with that strange feeling of pride turned to instant shame”, when the burden of failure is pinned squarely on the shoulders of the fallen. Unfocused on failure, with native experience of this society as a whole, McCarroll’s Appalachians are mostly survivors, in full possession of their humanity; proud soldiers of life, with the fallen still deserving our respect.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, of attitude as old as Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is sternly focused on the stereotypical images of shame, and there are plenty of fallen. The paradoxical images of these skillful writers almost forces choosing sides in the argument of whether-free-will-exists. Appalachia, like most other places, manifests the full spectrum of achievement, depravity, and everything in between, so the only coherent question is the collective one: Is the place—can a place– be responsible for its statistics?

Both McCarroll and Vance weave spells that paralyze the search for explanations outside the realm of morals, ethics, and feelings. These things are part of the essence of what makes us human. Yet when we look for explanations of why things are as they are, we might forget how abjectly vulnerable all of us are to things of inhuman scale. Suppose that in some spaceship, the oxygen supply goes bad, and everybody asphyxiates. It might be food for a confessional drama with the intensity of the best modern works, yet utterly unable to touch the inhuman cause of their demise. There might be human drama in the reason the oxygen supply came to fail, as might eventually be dredged from the 737-Max disasters. But there might not; the cause might remain inscrutable and unreproducible. What is inexplicable becomes an act of God, exempt from human culpability, a statistic, a shoulder shrug.

A dilemma is framed, which can only exist as a dialog internal to the bodies of thought called the liberal arts. Resolution comes from the borderlands of that compendium. It is not a particularly bitter pill, unless one isolates one’s self with ivory tower ferocity. It comes from the study of cities, which with a bit of irony, are the theaters, physical and otherwise, for the performative arts of Bourdain, and the narrative arts of McCarroll and Vance. Cities exist for social interaction as well as commerce.

The form and viability of a city depend upon the physical circumstances and imagination of the builders. Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (Harcourt, 1961) may be first to systematize, going beyond title to trilogize the city as the work of man, yet organic, more or less, in relation to the environment. Upon this relationship, success is predicated. Mumford may in the end succumb to the lure of perfect harmony, but you don’t have to “take your Mumford straight”, as successor Sibyl Moholy-Nagy puts it, to imbibe the gem of the book. Long after Socrates drank the hemlock, Mumford chooses to pick a bone, and it is well worth picking.

Quoting Mumford, “In the ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of ‘men in the city’. That was a Cockney illusion: a forgetfulness of the city’s visible dependence upon the country, not only for food, but for a thousand other manifestations of organic life, equally nourishing to the mind; and not less, we know now, of man’s further dependence upon a wide network of ecological relations that connect his life…”

Mumford continues with “Regression to Utopia”. Contrary to romantic depiction, Hellenic cities were dowdy, dysfunctional, unsanitary habitats. Rather than confront, revise, and rebuild, Greeks tuned out with philosophies of increasingly mystical cant. Better cities would await the cultural hybridization of the glorious Hellenistic cities, many in exemplary harmony with the environment. Even without mythic statuary, strong analogy applies to Appalachia. It could displace arguments based on morals, blame, and destiny.

As a leftover from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, sociology held considerable sway in public debate into the 80’s. The NY Times archive holds an article from September 27, 1981, titled “SAVING APPALACHIA: WAS $15 BILLION WELL SPENT?”, which contains all kinds of quantitative references absent from the narratives of story tellers and performers. In particular: “Because only about 3 percent of the land area of Pike County, with its booming rural population of 81,000, is level enough to support buildings,…”

Except on a very small scale, this is an unalterable fact of the entire region. One might be tempted to think there must be a technological solution – building tricks, special concrete, but there is not. And if one should, for some perverse reason, at great cost, decide to build on a steep hill, one would find that even rock-strewn hills creep downwards. All it takes is a fraction of an inch per year for a building to become unsound in decades. But suppose, as is sometimes the case with public works, as it was with New Orleans, that we decide to build a factory on as hillside, anyway.

Factories were once vertical structures, still visible in many urban areas, but no longer used for large scale industry. Before central heating and cheap energy, vertical aspect enabled recovery of waste heat from industrial processes in lower storeys to heat upper storeys. Mechanical power to drive machinery was delivered from a central steam engine by belts and shafts. Vertical aspect became a hindrance with the development of the electric motor, which enabled the flow-through factory. The preferred factory became a single storey structure, frequently of immense acreage. Flat acreage.

This may have been recognized. The article states, “One theory was that corporations would not bring in the small manufacturing plants needed to diversify the coal-based economy without ‘urban amenities’ for plant managers and their families.” But in analogy with Mumford’s study of habitats, there was no organic reason to put a small manufacturing unit in an out-of-the way place unless, figuratively, it used a lot of wood.

McCarroll’s Appalachia is the victim of predation. Vance’s is guilty as charged. Bourdain’s is people who dream and feel like the rest of Americans, with regional differences small compared to our common core. It sounds more like a trial than a description of circumstance.

Somewhere in these rich sketchbooks of humanity, it should be noted, if only as a nonliterary, unpoetic footnote, that only 3% of the land is flat.

(CNN) Condolences to Anderson Cooper

On the passing of Gloria Vanderbilt, an artist, which means she fell in love with the Moon, as did Li Bai, the poet.

(click to enlarge)

Twenty five years ago, walking on Central Park West, an individual, who I vaguely recognized but could not name, gifted me the smile of a stranger. That gift of a stranger,  who turned out to be Anderson Cooper, is rare on the streets of New York City.

A small thing, but not forgotten.




Coalition Against Iran; Logical Positivism and Self Interest

In Iran Sanctions; Bolton on Regime Change, I wrote

This gives the a priori probabilities:

          • chance of negotiations = 28%
          • chance of positive outcome to sanctions = 14%

From Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack; Missile Attack on U.S. Forces?,

This is really  just a recapitulation of Carl von Clausewitz. The enemy will react. Tactical and diplomatic brilliance are required to cause the enemy to choose the path of our choice, not his. Quoting (italics mine),

“But everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality. In the former, everything must be subject to optimism, and we must imagine the one side as well as the other striving after perfection and even attaining it. Will this ever take place in reality?”


But it is necessary for us to commence with a glance at the nature of the whole, because it is particularly necessary that in the consideration of any of the parts their relation to the whole be kept constantly in view.

The relation to the whole is the sanctions ecosystem, and the willingness of U.S. allies to embrace the result, a need for a military coalition to keep the oil moving out of the Gulf. In misuse of logical positivism (show me the money) Germany and Japan voice skepticism of Iran’s responsibility for the tanker attacks, because it’s their veins that get cut.

While keeping up the logical positivism in public, Russia, in the first favor to the U.S. since record-keeping began, has refused the S-400 to Iran. (Bloomberg) Russia Rejected Iran S-400 Missile Request Amid Gulf Tension. Of course, Russia may not be unhappy with the price support from keeping Iranian oil off the market. There are also intimations that Russia is also concerned about Iranian expansion via Hezbollah in Syria.

Since the decided U.S. policy is  to derail Iranian expansionism by the use of economic pressure, with the possibility of military conflict, can  we can improve our game? (CNN)  US policy toward Iran is all stick and no carrot. Consider an active shooter, who might be a religious fanatic,  barricaded inside a house. Do you just toss a phone inside, and yell, “Pick up the phone and we’ll negotiate your surrender terms”?  It doesn’t work this way; a trained hostage negotiator is called in, perhaps a team, so they can go at it 24/7. With an informed psychological approach.

Diplomacy, and diplomacy backed by power, is not usually so enlightened, unless Henry Kissinger is involved. Instead, it appeals to the imagined self interest of the adversary. From Checklist for Middle East Foreign Policy; When to Hold & When to Fold,

      • To think one correctly identifies the adversary’s most important self-interest, and that it will act according to that interest, is usually wrong. (Sanctions.)

There is an alternative to the volitional, conscious, overtly coercive approach. “Carrot and stick” oversimplifies. Without entirely abandoning the current U.S. coercive approach, consider ways in which it could be elevated to the exalted Iranian level of manipulation.

From Iran Sanctions; Bolton on Regime Change,

With such dismal odds for the success of sanctions, this is another opportunity to suggest B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, referenced in Russia, proposed Syria cooperation with United States; Is Russia a Rational Actor? and related articles.

If you’ve read about the Skinner Box, your reaction may have been that it is too hard to implement in practice, requiring major revisions of U.S. administrative law. With Iran, it’s much easier, because the primary export is oil. Simply take charge of Iran oil sales.

In steps,

  • Take charge of sales.
  • Induce a state of learned helplessness.
  • In return for good behavior, restore empowerment by degrees.

This will not appeal to those who think in terms of finality. But on how many occasions has history gifted us with beneficent finality? With the salting of Carthage?





Iran Fires Second Shot in New Tanker War; Counter Strategies?

(Reuters) Latest on suspected attacks on tankers in Gulf of Oman.

(CNN) Gulf of Oman tankers hit in suspected attack.

Japan Prime Minister Abe is currently in Tehran, negotiating with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Although the destinations were not direct to Japan, one of the ships has a Japanese owner. While CNN states that both cargoes are related to Japan, Reuters identifies one as going to a Taiwan refiner.

As before (see Iran Fires the First Shot in New Tanker War) the question is who did it? Two arguments can be made:

  • The ships were en route from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led alliance  would not attack vessels engaged in commerce with them. By exclusion, this implicates Iran.
  • Iran’s foreign minister implies (CNN: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe” the incident coinciding with Abe’s visit.) that Iran would not attack ships related to Japan while Abe is visiting. Iran would like us to at least be confused and hesitant by advancing the argument that by excluding Iran, this implicates the  Saudi alliance.

This appears to be an opportunity for Iran to press the new Tanker War with a fortuitous veil of obfuscation provided by Abe’s visit. It’s plausible as it stands, but there is more: Abe’s overture to Khamenei on behalf of Trump  was rejected. (Reuters) Iranian leader tells Japan’s Abe Trump “not worthy” of a reply to message.

The coincidence of Abe’s visit is an Iranian finger gesture; the  attacks are Iran’s second shot of the New Tanker War.

Response. In comparison to the previous attacks, this conclusion of Iranian responsibility has come quickly. The attacks show that deniable aggression has an important adjunct role in diplomacy, viewed by an adversary as promoting the favorable resolution of a conflict without the danger of full-scale war.

Deniable tactics, though much harder to execute than conventional responses, have been used by the U.S. in the past. They may be useful now, to symmetrize the sense of damage between the two sides, while reducing the chance of escalation. Note:

  • Losses by Iran are not necessarily measureable in dollars. Subjective measures of loss of standard of living may be more appropriate.
  • For Iran’s maritime traffic to be put at risk, Iran has to have something to lose.  This could be  as simple as overlooking off-the-books smuggled oil, but there has to be something. You can’t choke a dead man.
  • In selection of targets for deniable strike, little substitution can be made of military targets in place of economic. The Iranian military myth involves a lot of endurance against pain and loss. A possible exception is Iran’s main naval facility, proximal to the tanker attacks.

Deniable tactics present at least the possibility of conflict resolution without progression to a hot-war situation, which would also have an uncertain end point.




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