Tehran employs old and tested moves in Gulf crisis

Lebanon example shows how risk of error rises when strategy is tinged with violence

A woman sits along a beach as tanker ships are seen in the waters of the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the eastern UAE emirate of Fujairah on June 15, 2019.  / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE
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Whether Iran was behind the brazen attacks in the Gulf of Oman last week or not, the image of two large tankers on fire in one of the world’s most vital oil routes served as a tool in Iran’s psychological warfare of projecting strength regardless of the damage to its economy from US sanctions.

The attacks, blamed on Iran by the US and Saudi Arabia, however appeared to be more of the calibrated escalations that have been the hallmark of a consistent Iranian strategy that has worked for Tehran at varying levels in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. On occasions there has been significant miscalculations, especially in Lebanon.

Iran’s announcement on Sunday that Tehran is about to further reduce its commitment under the 2015 nuclear deal without an outright breach constitutes another page from the same rulebook.

“The idea is to remain a frightening threat while avoiding direct conventional war,” Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute wrote in a research memo last month, before the renewed attacks on the oil tankers and a Houthi missile attack on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia.

Washington and Riyadh said Iran was behind the targeting of the Norwegian and Japanese-owned tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The attacks rattled the oil markets as the prime minister of Japan, whose country is partly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, was in Tehran.

In previous crises, Iran has boasted that it could easily close the Strait of Hormuz despite its relatively small navy compared to the United States. In the 1980s, during the Iraq-Iran War, US naval protection helped to keep the oil flowing through the strait despite damage to some vessels.

Tehran denied any responsibility for Thursday's attacks and called them suspicious. But several pro-Iranian commentators on Hezbollah-linked media outlets could not help but brag. An editorial in the pro-Iranian newspaper Al Akhbar of Lebanon said the probability of sabotage against oil infrastructure and ships is rising as long as the US and its regional allies continue their anti-Iranian policies.

“Wait for more, and even harsher,” the editorial said, referring to the recent attacks.

The strategy of perseverance in presenting Iran and its proxies as a threat in the hope that their enemies would change policy was honed in decades of confrontation with Israel, as well as in Syria and Iraq, massively expanding the influence of Iran and its militia allies in these countries.

Attacks by Iranian-backed Shiite militias contributed to raising the US casualty toll in Iraq without a direct link to the Iranian government. Iran appeared to respond to Russian-Israeli cooperation in Syria that sometimes ran against its interests by firing rockets from Syria at the occupied Golan Heights while largely refraining from hitting Israel proper.

A generally disciplined Hezbollah fight against Israel helped to bring about a 1996 internationally brokered agreement that some argue curbed the targeting of civilians. Israel eventually withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation prompted by Palestinian guerrilla attacks.

In 2006, however, a Hezbollah kidnapping of Israeli soldiers from inside Israel brought a major Israeli retaliation in the form of an incursion in south Lebanon and bombing that destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and killed many more civilians than the mostly military Israeli casualties.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah came close to admitting that he had miscalculated in 2006, but the war helped to divert attention from the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri and helped bury a UN tribunal that was tasked with investigating the killing.

Although Hezbollah still brags that its rocket arsenal surpassed that of the 2006 conflict, Lebanese sources say Israel had made it clear to Lebanon that if a 2006 scenario is repeated it would not hesitate to hit Lebanese infrastructure harder and empty south Lebanon of its majority-Shiite inhabitants.

Mr Khalaji, the research fellow at the Washington Institute, said American belittling of Iran under the Trump administration had only served to hamper diplomacy. He warned that Iran “has been known to take risks that seem highly disproportionate to the potential benefits,” pointing to suspected Iranian agents arrested in Europe for attacks on Iranian opposition figures in recent years.