How will the Tanker War end?
Following explosions on oil tankers near the port of Fujairah on May 19 and two more explosions close to the Gulf of Oman on June 13, it is now clear that the Tanker War has started and will probably continue. The regime’s propaganda apparatus publishes news based on conspiracy theories blaming the explosions on the Emiratis, Israel or the US, and shows staged rescues of crew members; but myriads of proof against the Revolutionary Guard cannot be swept under the rug. There are four reasons to believe the Revolutionary Guard is responsible for these attacks:
- No non-governmental military force in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman has the capacity to perform these missions (planting mines and firing torpedoes)
- No country benefits from these attacks other than Iran, which is under economic pressure and thus wants its competitors to be under similar pressure. In June 2019, the Islamic Republic’s oil exports dropped to fewer than 300 thousand barrels per day. The country’s foreign exchange reserves can cover the expenses of the regime and its costly military interventions for little over another year. The regime needs the price of oil to increase.
- Evidence from the June attacks clearly shows the presence of a Revolutionary Guard’s boat removing the unexploded limpet mines. Some of the crewmembers of a tanker have attested to seeing an Iranian military ship in the region. This can explain the staged rescue of some of the crewmembers who are in fact held captive by the Revolutionary Guard.
- The armed forces of the Islamic Republic are carrying out Iranian officials’ threats to the letter. Hassan Rouhani had openly declared that: “America has declared that Iran’s oil exports must reach zero. They do not understand what this means, as it makes no sense for Iran not to export its oil while every other member of the region does. If you think you are capable of it, then do it; you will face the consequences” (ISNA July 3, 2018). Or “America must know that if one day they want to prevent the export of Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf” (ISNA December 4, 2018). Other political and military officials have issued similar statements. Reiterating these statements shows Iranian officials’ unrelenting desire (even of those who are presented as moderate figures to the world) to stop oil exports from the region.
As the Tanker War has begun and the Islamic Republic seems to want to take advantage of this as a tool to decrease the pressure of sanctions, this begs the question: how will the Arab countries and the US and its allies (such as the UK, which has blamed the attacks on the Revolutionary Guard) react and where would these conflicts end. In case these attacks persist or grow, there are four possible responses for the US and its allies in the region, none of which are in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s favor:
Escorting the ships
If the US is determined to avoid military conflict and simultaneously prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from carrying out more attacks on tankers, this country and its allies can assign escorts for these tankers. This is the measure that was also taken in the 1980s when Iran could not export its oil due to Iraqi fighter planes attacks, and so it attacked tankers. This scenario would lead to the presence of more military forces of the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which is not and has never been what the Islamic Republic of Iran wants. The presence of these forces increases the probability of military conflict.
Limited and Appropriate Military Reaction
If the attacks on tankers continue or reach oil platforms, it is possible that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oil facilities in the Persian Gulf would be attacked. Toward the end of the Iran Iraq war, similar attacks were carried out in response to the Revolutionary Guard’s attacks on Kuwait’s oil platforms. These attacks would hit specific targets and, considering the US Navy's firepower, the Islamic Republic of Iran would be unable to cause significant damage to the US Navy. This scenario would also not be in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a part of its oil and gas infrastructure would be destroyed. These escalations could bring about tragedies such as attacks on passenger planes or similar incidents.
If the attacks continue, enough evidence will be available to condemn the Islamic Republic of Iran in the UN Security Council and international consensus against Iran will be reached. Russia and China can only deny or tolerate the Islamic Republic’s actions up to a certain point, especially since China would not want instability in the oil market, as it will increase the price of China’s oil imports. Russia, too, wants stability in the oil market. Diplomatic action can provide grounds for a deterrent military reaction. If military conflicts persist, American forces might target the Revolutionary Guard’s boats or its strongholds and facilities in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in order to prevent further attacks.
Full-fledged wars, in this case, would not mean military land invasion. The United States would not pursue regime change through occupying Iran. If the Revolutionary Guard’s forces attack the US Navy, then Iranian foundational facilities, military bases, ballistic missile, and nuclear bases will be targeted. The Revolutionary Guard might cause some damage to the American Forces (similar to what the Japanese did in the Pearl Harbour), but the result will be the destruction of all Iranian facilities. The United States of America would not need to land a single soldier on Iranian soil in order to destroy these installations.
All four scenarios demonstrate that Iran has begun the Tanker War out of desperation and being left with no other option, and this will not end well for the regime. The Tanker War of the 80s also began out of desperation and did not end well for the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Tanker War will not end the sanctions, nor will it increase Iran’s oil exports, nor will it change US policy. Oil exports will not end either. Perhaps before these attacks, the Democrats might have sided with the Islamic Republic out of enmity toward Trump, but with the start of the Tanker War, they will be forced to keep silent. The Tanker War will accelerate the international consensus against Iran.