Long-term standoff threatens to turn into crisis after alleged sabotage of two Saudi tankers
A festering four-year war, crippling sanctions, threats to maritime oil trade and a US naval battlegroup steaming for the Persian Gulf. Such developments were troubling enough, before two Saudi tankers were reportedly sabotaged off the UAE coast on Sunday a development set to ratchet tensions between Tehran and Washington to new and combustible highs.
With Riyadh claiming significant hull damage to its ships and the UAE claiming the damage was done inside its territorial waters, what last week was a looming standoff is now a real-time crisis with potent implications for both global energy security and regional stability.
Throughout Donald Trumps presidency, staring down Iran has been top of the agenda among many to have passed through the revolving door of his inner circle. For the current uber-hawks, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the national security adviser, John Bolton, there has hardly been a higher calling. Both have been pivotal in focusing Trump on Iran, and imposing new comprehensive sanctions on its economy. And both drove the bellicose rhetoric that last week spelled out the same scenario to which the region awoke on Monday.
According to Riyadh, one of the sabotaged tankers was en route to a Saudi port to upload oil to be exported to the US. Stopping such a shipment would be consistent with an act of revenge for crippling Iranian exports and for making good on threats to disrupt global energy routes although on Monday Iran vehemently denied playing a role.
Boltons prediction of a credible threat from Iran, or its proxies, to the oil interests of Washington, or its allies, however looks prophetic in the royal courts of the Gulf. And what regional officials are calling a terrorist attack is certain to similarly energise a White House that has at times appeared to be itching for a confrontation with a foe it now faces in most corners of the Middle East.
Iran has steadily become the sum of all fears in the eyes of the US and its regional allies; its creeping influence across the Arab world, belligerence towards Israel and perceived readiness to act on its threats to a decades old regional order, which not without irony was upended by the US invasion of Iraq.
Trumps backers ignore the Bush administrations intervention, blaming instead Barack Obamas pivot towards Iran and his signature nuclear deal for kickstarting Irans adventurism. While Obamas gestures were hardly seen in Tehran as trust-building measures and did nothing to slow a regional consolidation, Irans ascendancy started before him and has continued since.