The US, Iran and ‘Sabotage’ in the Persian Gulf

Four oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz were targets of “sabotage” attacks from unknown sources.

By Xander Snyder  


A week after the United States deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East to counter an unspecified Iranian threat, four oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz were targeted by a “sabotage” attack from unknown sources. Two of the ships were Saudi, one of which was en route to pick up oil and deliver it to the U.S. The other two were Norwegian and Emirati. All of the ships were reportedly sabotaged near the Fujairah Emirate, which houses a refueling hub south of the strait on the Gulf of Oman. None of the ships sank, and no individuals have been reported killed or injured.

So far, little is known about the attacks. The Norwegian ship, the Andrea Victory, was reportedly “struck by an unknown object,” according to the ship’s operator, and video footage shows a hole in its hull near the waterline. A reporter from Sky News Arabia, a partly Emirati-owned news agency, captured video footage of the Al Marzoqah, one of the Saudi ships, that showed no identifiable damage. Separately, Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen reported that seven Emirati oil tankers were damaged in an explosion at the port of Fujairah, a charge that was subsequently taken up in Iranian media and that the United Arab Emirates denied. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has blamed Iran publicly. The UAE said it has requested support from a team of U.S. investigators and that it will refrain from making any conclusions until the investigation is complete.

The initial assessment from the U.S. investigators, according to American officials who spoke with CBS News on Monday, was that Iran or its proxies were behind the attacks. The team hasn’t reached a final conclusion yet, but Iran would seem to be the most likely suspect. It has, after all, threatened for years to take action in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has also launched sabotage and asymmetric attacks against more powerful adversaries before. By demonstrating the vulnerability of shipping in the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could beat its chest without seriously escalating an already tense situation to the point that the U.S. would need to get involved.

At the same time, it’s not entirely clear what Iran would gain from such low-grade attacks. If anything, Iranian leaders appear to have been spooked by the U.S. deployment last week. In a closed-door session with Iran’s Parliament over the weekend, IRGC chief Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami said that, while Iran is prepared for war with the U.S., it doesn’t expect war. (Unsurprisingly, Iranian leaders certainly aren’t claiming responsibility for the attack and have called the incident “regretful.”)

Nothing about a war with the U.S. would benefit Iran. Its economy is in shambles. Its people are struggling financially as the persistently weak rial drives up demand for hard assets that are ever further out of reach for the average Iranian. Drought plagues the country, driving disaffected farmers into crowded cities. And the regime is so strapped for cash that there have been reports that Hezbollah (an Iran-funded proxy) is struggling to pay its fighters. On top of this, the country’s oil export revenue has been declining because of reimposed U.S. sanctions. Iran cannot win a war with the U.S., which means that at least some factions within the country are seeking a way out of their current predicament.

Despite its bellicose rhetoric, the IRGC likely doesn’t want war, either. While it is angling to pull power away from President Hassan Rouhani and other moderates who supported the nuclear deal with the U.S., if all the political infighting brings only the threat of war with the U.S., the public may begin to question the efficacy of the IRGC’s policies, too. Showcasing its ability to pose a low-level threat to Persian Gulf shipping channels could be a way for the IRGC to offer a tangible policy without risking U.S. retaliation and without letting the situation get out of its control.

But it wouldn’t make the IRGC look particularly strong, either. Sabotage attacks like the ones conducted over the weekend – which at present look to have caused, at most, minor damage – don’t fundamentally change Iran’s strategic position, help Iran get around U.S. sanctions, or strengthen Iran’s allied militias’ prospects anywhere in the Middle East. The benefit of such attacks, in other words, is superficial at best, showcasing the limited options available to the IRGC rather than its military prowess.

For its part, the U.S. has remained quiet so far, with President Donald Trump issuing only a vague threat to Iran “if something happens.” As of Sunday, the U.S. began flying what it has referred to as “deterrence flights” over the Persian Gulf with its recently deployed B-52s, as well as F-35s and F-15s, but it’s unclear whether there’s a connection between these flights and the apparent sabotage.

All things considered, the situation doesn’t seem to benefit any of the typical players that have an interest in Persian Gulf transit. For now, then, we’ll count this as another variable in the ongoing U.S.-Iran standoff.

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