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.