Over the last few weeks there’s been yet another surge in tensions in the Middle East, with the Islamic Republic of Iran being blamed by the United States and many of its allies for six attacks on tankers in the region in just a little over a month. The four earlier attacks, which hit two Saudi, one Emirati and one Norwegian tanker off the United Arab Emirates’ coast, took place on May 12th.
The two more recent ones were on the Japanese owned Kokula Courageous and a second Norwegian owned vessal, the MT Front Altair, as they were passing through the Gulf of Oman last Thursday. Thankfully, there were no reported casualties, but there were possible cargo losses with all the economic and, more importantly, environmental costs that this could entail.
The attacks also took place while Japan’s Prime Minister was visiting the Islamic Republic, the first such visit by a head of state from that nation in over 40 years. Odd timing if the assaults were undertaken at the behest of the Iran’s government.
Soon after the events in the Gulf of Oman, U.S. authorities released a grainy, black and white video that they claimed showed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing a limpet mine above the waterline on the Japanese ship’s side after at least one other such mine had exploded.
One problem with this story was pointed out by former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, who noted, “Limpet mines are placed below the waterline. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, holes above the waterline will not sink a ship. Secondly, the weight of the water helps contain the blast against the ship. Thirdly, it is obviously harder to detect both the diver placing the mine and the mine once placed if it is below the water. In fact, it would be very difficult for a diver to place a limpet mine four feet above the waterline, even if they wanted to.”
Leaving aside the fact that we don’t actually know who the men on the small boat were, or what they were doing, with some commentators offering the reasonable suggestion that they were helping to evacuate the tanker’s 23 person crew, the owners of the Kokula Courageous and those aboard have also said that it wasn’t mines that damaged the tanker but two airborne projectiles.
Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo, the owner of the tanker, clearly contradicted the story coming from the American government, saying, “We aren’t sure exactly what hit, but it was something flying toward the ship,”
Some of the crew have also said they came under small arms fire.
While progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have urged caution in assigning blame before any investigation has taken place, some in the American and British governments, have insisted that the Islamic Republic is behind the attacks, with U.S.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling the press shortly after news of the attacks broke, “Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.”
The Islamic Republic has, as we might expect, denied the accusations and it does seem a little strange that the country, already deeply hurting under U.S. imposed sanctions, would undertake such rash actions to make an unclear point at the risk of serious repercussions.
While it could turn out that Iran or, more likely if true, some faction within the country of 80 million is behind the provocations, shouldn’t other suspects, who might include the wealthy Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and the UAE. or the proxies they’ve used from Afghanistan to Syria and Libya, face scrutiny before the United States and its allies find themselves embroiled in another costly war?
Iran is also being blamed for a recent spate of operations by battle-hardened Houthi forces in Yemen, who have used drones to attack a pipeline and airports in Saudi Arabia. As always, it is important to explain that the Houthis’ Zaidi Shiism is very different from the version practiced in Iran; this isn’t to say they haven’t received aid from the Islamic Republic in the past, but understanding the fierce independence the Houthis are known for, and considering the current land and sea blockade of the country, it’s hard to buy the long-running mainstream narrative that the Houthis are nothing more than pawns of Iran.
As an aside, while Saudi Arabia is seen as the primary aggressor in Yemen, the UAE seems to have designs on keeping control of ports in the country along the Red Sea, especially Aden. It sometimes seems like tiny Abu Dhabi, with its own powerful crown prince, is the tail wagging the much larger and more publicly aggressive Saudi dog.
Although the current occupant of the White House has made it clear he doesn’t want a war with the Islamic Republic, saying just a little more than a week ago that he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders, “with no preconditions,” advisors like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo (with help from many in corporate media) seem to be trying to move the country in this direction, with the former believed to have floated a plan in May, later leaked to the press, to send 120,000 U.S. troops to the region.
The plan seems to be to get around the U.S. Congress by using the Authorization for the Use of Military Force drawn up by the Bush Administration after the September 11th attacks, which gives the president the power to go to war with any state or group involved in those attacks, a bit of a stretch when one considers that Sunni Al Qaeda and Shia Iran are mortal enemies.
Pompeo especially, long known as an Iran hawk, has shown a similar willingness to mislead the American public as those who fabricated the case for war in Iraq; as reported by the Intercept, “During a public April 10 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo claimed Iran has “very real” connections with al Qaeda. When asked by [Rand] Paul whether the AUMF applies to Iran, Pompeo declined to say.”
In the meantime, the United States and the Islamic Republic continue to exchange threats and take tit for tat actions, with Iranian authorities saying that by June 27th they will no longer be within the limits set for enriched uranium by the Iran Nuclear Deal that the current U.S. president pulled out of, although this is also probably meant to put pressure on other signatories to the deal, especially the European Union.
As Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, told the BBC, “There is still time for the Europeans… But the Europeans have expressed indirectly their inability to act. They should not think that after 60 days, they will have another 60-day opportunity.”
One of those working to rein in the war-making power of the American presidency, or in this case, out of control subordinates of the president, and prevent a conflict with Iran is Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently spoke about the actions he is taking in the Congress, “I am working hard to see if we can get 51 members of the U.S. Senate, as well as a majority in the House of Representatives to make clear that before the President takes any military action in Iran or anyplace else, he must seek authorization from the Congress. Taking us into a war without congressional authorization would be unconstitutional and illegal.”
Although we hear more about the number of small donors who have contributed to Sanders’ presidential campaign, often overlooked are the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are being deployed not only to knock on doors but have been deployed for separate organizing efforts, especially in terms of the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage. If these volunteers were to also raise their voices and organize others in opposition to another war in the Middle East, American progressives could build the largest, best organized antiwar movement since the Vietnam War era. Judging by the words of hawks like Pompeo and Bolton, the main question is if there’s enough time.