The US maximum pressure strategy to lower Iranian oil exports to zero has led to the Iranian regime reacting in an aggressive manner and exposing itself further regionally and internationally, with it engaging in a number of belligerent acts in the Gulf and against Saudi Arabia. This belligerency has not been helped by the lacklustre response from the international community, leading to more breathing space for the Iranian regime to execute its hostile policies in the Gulf and against Saudi Arabia. This Iran in-depth piece looks to analyze the differing responses to Iran’s belligerent acts, however, before delving into this, it is important to outline the recent belligerent acts conducted by the Iranian regime in the Gulf and against Saudi Arabia.
In May 2019, four oil tankers were targeted off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE. On the back of this, Iranian supported Houthi militias targeted two Aramco oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. The investigative report published jointly by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway highlighted that it is highly probable that a state actor was behind the attack, something which is supported by the investigation findings. On June 12, 2019, the Houthi militia launched a cruise missile at Abha airport in the south west of Saudi Arabia. The attack injured 26 civilians. It was reported by the Houthi militia’s Al-Masirah TV on Saturday June 15, 2019, that it had launched fresh drone attacks against Jizan and Abha airports. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said it had intercepted and downed the Houthi drone. “The two airports are now out of service. We promise the Saudi regime more painful days as long as the aggression and siege continue on our country,” the Houthi’s armed forces spokesman said in a tweet published on Al-Masirah TV’s Twitter account.
On the morning of Thursday June 13, 2019, two oil tankers were targeted in the Gulf of Oman near the Iranian coast. The tankers, both full with shipments of oil, were heading to Japan and Singapore. As was the case with the Fujairah attacks, Iranian media agencies were the first to publish reports on the incident, preceding global media agencies. These attacks coincided with the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran to act as a mediator in trying to defuse escalating tensions in the Gulf. According to official statements published by the Iranian press, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected the Japanese offer to mediate between Iran and the United States.
In the aftermath, Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran for this belligerency. “We do not want a war in the region….but we won’t hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity, and our vital interests,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. He added, “The Iranian regime did not respect the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Tehran. While he was there (it) replied to his efforts by attacking two tankers, one of which was Japanese.” The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks and said that the United States would defend itself and its allies in the region. He said the impetus for Iran’s upsurge in belligerency in the Gulf was because of the US administration’s maximum pressure strategy of sanctions that are designed to force Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and its support of militias across the region. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attacks and called for an independent inquiry, while the United Kingdom in a daring move broke away from its European counterparts and claimed that Iran’s military is “almost certainly” responsible for the apparent attacks on the two oil tankers. The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement on Friday June 14, 2019, “I condemn yesterday’s attacks on two vessels in the Gulf of Oman. These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilizing Iranian behavior and pose a serious danger to the region.” In contrast, Germany while condemning the attacks, cast a shadow of doubt over the blame pointed at Iran by the United States and the United Kingdom. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass cast doubt on evidence that the United States claims is proof that Iran was behind the attacks in the Gulf of Oman. “The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me,” Mass told reporters during a press conference on Friday June 14, 2019. Similar to this cautious and indecisive German position, European Union officials called for “maximum restraint.” A spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign service told reporters, “We are gathering more information and we are assessing the situation.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the attack and called for refraining from making hasty accusations. “We consider it necessary to refrain from hasty conclusions. Blaming anyone for involvement in these incidents before the completion of a thorough and impartial international investigation is unacceptable,” the ministry said in a statement. China expressed concern over the attacks but called on all sides to exercise restraint, urging dialogue to resolve differences. “Nobody wants to see a war in the Gulf. That is not in anyone’s interest……….We hope all relevant parties remain calm and exercise restraint and avoid tensions escalating further,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
The aforementioned clearly indicates the disparity in responses to the attacks in the Gulf of Oman by the significant international actors. This disparity has given the Iranian regime flexibility in carrying out its belligerency, fully knowing that the international community itself is not united on a position against it, therefore allowing it to escape any collective action. Iran is a rational actor and is capable of playing off states against one another. Its strategic alliances with Russia and China are in its interest to shield it from any collective response and keep the international community divided. This lukewarm response is a dangerous position to take by the international community, as surely regional and global interests must take priority over national interests at this moment in time? How is it possible to serve national interests with Iran inflaming tensions in the Gulf? Is it not time for international actors to stop playing their strategic games at the expense of Gulf security? These are questions which the international community needs to ponder over, as “restraint” and “dialogue” have not worked and there is a need for the international community to realize the belligerent nature of the Iranian regime before it is too late. The region, as well as the world, is on the brink of a multi-faceted crisis and all the fingers of blame will not point toward Iran as its behavior is expected but at the international community for its failure to fulfill its responsibility to safeguard peace and security in the world.