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Oil-Tanker Attacks A 'Dangerous Escalation' In U.S.-Iran Confrontation, Expert Says

One of the two oil tankers is seen on fire in the sea off Oman on June 13.

Attacks on two commercial oil tankers in the Gulf Of Oman have escalated tensions in the Middle East and raised the prospect of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. Washington and its allies in the region have blamed Tehran for the blasts on board the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous. The cause of the explosions remains unclear.

The blasts, south of the Strait of Hormuz, followed last month's attacks on vessels off the nearby United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) that Washington also blamed on Tehran. Almost a fifth of the world's oil passes through the strait.

Tensions have escalated since May 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers that aimed to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Washington has since reimposed stiff economic sanctions. Tehran has repeatedly warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it could not sell its oil because of U.S. sanctions.

RFE/RL spoke with Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website, about the attack and its possible repercussions.

RFE/RL: The U.S. military has blamed Iran for the attacks on the tankers. What possible political, economic, and military motivations would Iran have for allegedly targeting the vessels?

Scott Lucas: There is nothing conclusive about Iranian responsibility at this point. When you assess the possible motives behind this attack, we should consider the context.

The background in terms of quasi-military operations would be the attacks on the four ships, including the two Saudi tankers, in the U.A.E. port on May 12. It would include the drone attacks on Saudi pumping stations by Huthi rebels recently. Politically, the context for this would be a much tougher line this week from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who not only rejected mediation by Germany and Japan but did so in very strong terms.

This doesn't mean in any way I think that the Iranians necessarily did it. But there is a possible and plausible scenario under which it could have occurred. It could mean a faction within the Iranian system carried out military operations to say to the Americans and their allies, "Look, if you are going to come after us, we can hurt you."

A slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (left) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.
A slide provided by U.S. Central Command damage shows an explosion (left) and a likely limpet mine can be seen on the hull of the civilian vessel M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.

I'm not saying that's what happened. What I'm saying is that if the Iranians were responsible then what it means is that the supreme leader and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] are expecting American-led attempts at regime change or effectively a surrender of its position in the region and what the Iranians are saying is that they will not tolerate that. They're saying to the Americans, "If you think you can use military force to make us do this, we've got military capabilities as well."

RFE/RL: Does Iran have the military and intelligence capabilities to pull off such an attack?

Lucas: Iran certainly has the capabilities of carrying out such an attack. There's some confusion over whether the ships were hit from a flying object or they were disabled and damaged by limpet mines. The Iranians fought a ground, air, and naval war with Iraq from 1980-88, including in the Persian Gulf and the Strait Of Hormuz. Iran has developed military capabilities against a series of what they would call "regional enemies" like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Yes, they have the capabilities to attack shipping. We've known that for years. We have just always wondered if Iran would ever take the step to attack shipping. That's the unanswered question we have at this moment.

RFE/RL: U.S. acting Ambassador Jonathan Cohen said that "no proxy group in the area has the resources or the skill to act with this level of sophistication." Do Lebanon's Iran-backed Hizballah movement or the Iranian-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen have such capabilities?

Lucas: This is where the question of the flying object versus the limpet mine takes on significance. We know that the Huthis have carried out attacks on Saudi shipping by using airborne missiles. So we do have a group like the Huthis who have attacked shipping in the area. Why they would want to attack, for example, these ships and what their motives would be is a much different question.

My response here would be to put the Iranian side of the case. The Iranians are saying that the Saudis, the U.A.E., the Israelis, and the Americans all have motive in carrying out a false-flag attack and damaging these tankers and blaming it on the Iranians to set up the pretext for military action or at least more extensive sanctions. The Iranian argument would be that "we are being set up as the fall guy for this."

RFE/RL: The U.S. military released a video on June 13 that it said showed Iran's IRGC removing an unexploded mine from the side of one of the oil tankers. The U.S. military also released photographs showing the apparent mine, which attaches to the side of a ship magnetically, before it was removed later the same day. Does this apparent evidence incriminate Iran or is it inconclusive?

Lucas: I would expect Iran's response to be that the IRGC unit were helping that ship by removing the unexploded mine that had been placed there by someone else. The question will still remain: who placed that mine in the first place? The U.S. will insist that Iran was removing it to cover up its trail. This will become a political battle, amongst many, in the days to come.

RFE/RL: Besides Iran, what other state or nonstate actors could be responsible or would benefit from this attack?

Lucas: Those who would benefit from Iran being found guilty of this would be their rivals in the region -- Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Israel. Certainly, U.S. hard-liners would be supported in their case for stronger action against Iran if Tehran was found culpable. But that leads to Iran saying that those parties who benefit set up the attack to justify the maximum-pressure strategy that is being pursued by the Trump administration.

There is no evidence yet that this was a false-flag attack. We also don't have conclusive evidence that Iran is responsible for this. While we await that evidence, and it might never come, this becomes a political choice. Do you believe the Iranians who say they are being set up as the scapegoats or do you believe the Americans and their allies that say Iran is the culprit?

One thing is clear: We now have a resurgence of tension between the U.S., Iran, and other countries that after having retreated from military confrontation last month and with mediation being firmly rejected by Iran, we are back to a dangerous escalation. It doesn't mean that war is on the way, but it does mean the opportunity for the avoidance of war has shrunk.

Location of tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman
Location of tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman

RFE/RL: What kind of possible responses might we see from the United States and the region?

Lucas: That's a huge question in terms of what responses and how far do they go. Where we were last month was that the Americans were moving a carrier strike force to the Persian Gulf and bombers. And they were going to station bombers in Qatar as a show of its military capability.

Now that was checked because various U.S. agencies got Trump to say, "Let's not go too far." We're at the point where those military forces could be moved back to the region. Do the Americans take the position they did in the late 1980s? Back then they put in military forces to patrol the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. We know that ended very badly, culminating with a U.S. warship shooting down an Iranian civilian plane that killed almost 300 people.

Would the U.S. and Israel go further with a renewal of covert attacks? We know there were attacks on Iran to limit their nuclear program, including assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and the introduction of computer viruses. Would the U.S. go in and try to cripple Iranian infrastructure like the electricity grid or power stations with cyberwarfare?

On the other hand, what could the Iranians do? The Iranians can carry out asymmetric warfare through allies like Hizballah and the Huthis. Remember, Iran stands accused by European governments of carrying out bomb and assassination plots in recent years. So, there's a whole variety of actions that each side can take. But if they take any of those actions, they're committing themselves to an escalation. And this time, there may not be a way of stepping back from an escalation that does lead to overt military confrontation.

RFE/RL: What is the likelihood of a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States? In 1988, the United States launched Operation Praying Mantis in the Persian Gulf, attacking and destroying Iranian sea bases, a frigate, and other ships in retaliation for Tehran's use of sea mines during the Iran-Iraq War.

Lucas: I don't think either side goes in thinking, "I want war." We have been here before, as in the late 1980s, when each side was calculating on military steps which were short of war. The problem is that when you take military steps short of war, the other side could respond. You could then respond to their response and then you would have an upward spiral that does end in a widespread conflict.

Let's look at what's happening now. If the Americans put military forces into the Persian Gulf and the Iranians decide to buzz the forces by sending speed boats or by even threatening the use of naval mines, do the Americans then respond with fire upon IRGC forces?

War doesn't occur in a single dramatic moment. It occurs step by step, and that's the risk we are facing now. It's a risk that is now at its highest point since the 1980s of something that escalates into a direct military confrontation.

RFE/RL: Is there still a chance that diplomacy could de-escalate tensions?

Lucas: There's always a chance. We had diplomacy that de-escalated tensions that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The point is that on both sides we are getting steps that are rejecting diplomacy. The Americans quite clearly did that by shredding the nuclear agreement. That was their message to Iran. The Iranians have made their latest message very clear by rejecting diplomacy.

Someone has got to step in and says to both sides to pull back from military measures and signals. But the problem is it goes beyond military signals. Iran is demanding a diplomacy that eases U.S. sanctions. The Trump administration is demanding a diplomacy in which Iran has to give up its uranium-enrichment program and to end their activities in the Middle East, whether it's Iran's involvement in Syria's civil war, Yemen's civil war, or Lebanon's Hizballah.

Neither side is going to make concessions at this point. Diplomacy is always possible but at this point diplomacy has a very limited window in terms of what it can do.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.