An incident with American warships in the Persian Gulf shows how great the tension between Tehran and Washington is. The revolution guards are said to have hijacked a tanker off the coast of Iran.
After the outbreak of the corona epidemic, there had been hopes that it would at least temporarily reduce tensions between the United States and Iran. But as hard as both countries have been hit by the virus, they still won’t let go of their confrontational course. While the Donald Trump government maintains its “maximum pressure” campaign and rejects all appeals to ease sanctions against Iran to facilitate the import of urgently needed medical equipment, the leadership in Tehran continues to pressurize.
An incident in the Persian Gulf has now illustrated how tense the situation remains. Eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats had threatened several American Navy and Coast Guard ships during a joint maneuver in the north of the Gulf region, announced the command of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain on Wednesday. They would have circled the six warships for an hour and approached up to ten meters without responding to repeated warnings.
This “dangerous and provocative” approach in international waters is a violation of applicable shipping regulations, criticized the US Navy and warned that the responsible commanders reserved “the right to self-defense” in such incidents. The United States maintains several large naval bases in Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states. Iran has long been pushing for the withdrawal of American troops, which it considers illegitimate.
Strategy of the needle pricks against the Goliath
In a conventional conflict, the United States would outperform the handful of corvettes in the Iranian Navy. The revolution guards, however, rely on a strategy of pinholes and keep pushing American warships with their small, agile speedboats. There were some dangerous incidents last year, particularly in the strategically important sea route of Hormuz, through which around a fifth of the world’s oil exports run.
In May and June, six foreign tankers and freighters off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were damaged by explosions. Tehran denied any involvement, but much indicated the Revolutionary Guard. The attacks occurred against the backdrop of rising tensions, as Iran increased its pressure after the U.S. exit from the international nuclear deal in May 2018 and new sanctions were imposed.
When the Revolutionary Guard shot down a US reconnaissance drone over the Strait of Hormuz in June, both countries were on the brink of war. Trump stopped a retaliatory strike at the last minute. The conflict culminated in September when an unprecedented drone and missile attack on two Saudi oil plants temporarily shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production.
Iran continues to play with the muscles
At the time, the Pentagon decided not to reply because of concerns about a further escalation. However, since the Revolutionary Guardians stuck to their strategy of pinholes and allied militias repeatedly shot at American bases in Iraq, Trump decided at the beginning of January to take a drastic step to restore deterrence: in a drone attack in Baghdad, he had the Iranian general Kassem Soleimani killed.
If the United States had hoped to force Tehran to exercise more restraint, the calculation did not work. Tehran limited itself to a largely symbolic retaliation attack, but Allied militias like Kataib Hizbullah continue to fire missiles at American facilities in Iraq. That the Revolutionary Guards keep up the pressure in the Persian Gulf, showed the re-hijacking of a tanker on Tuesday.
According to media reports, armed men boarded the Hong Kong-registered ship and forced it to enter Iranian waters before releasing it. Iranian expert Ariane Tabatabai wrote on Twitter: “As expected, Iran continues to play with the muscles during the global pandemic, because contrary to what the Iranian hawks are constantly telling us, it is neither deterred nor willing to press the pause button in the tensions with the USA to press on the focus public health. “
The Columbia University researcher had warned in an article recently that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy does not lead to a change of course, but only to the fact that Tehran is expanding its nuclear program again and is appearing even more confidently in the region.
If Washington‘s hardliners around Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed it even harder to bring Tehran to its knees in the corona crisis, Tabatabai said they risk fueling the very behavior that the United States was trying to prevent.