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If the US doesn’t respond to Iran’s challenge, its reputation is on the line

May 28, 2020 at 3:29 pm

A gas flare on an oil production platform in Iran [REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/]

Fully-loaded Iranian oil tankers roam the oceans of the world and pass through strategic straits and waterways heading for two main destinations: Venezuela and China. In doing so, they are disregarding the sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and, along with the other targeted countries, are taking part in unprecedented defiance of the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world. The Trump administration in Washington, meanwhile, simply isn’t reacting at the moment, despite boasting of its own resolve and firmness. So what is going on?

From Iran’s perspective, the decision to operate tankers falls within two interrelated contexts: the first is Tehran’s insistence on breaking the embargo and overcoming US sanctions, whatever the cost, as well as its rejection of America’s starvation policy which Washington is pursuing in the name of “extreme pressure”. The second is Tehran’s conviction that Donald Trump, who is drowning under his failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recession and unprecedented unemployment rates, appears to be a lame duck president just months before the next election; he seems to be incapable of taking any serious action. This strategy is definitely a risk on Iran’s part, but it is a calculated risk as part of the attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, as well as the bombing of Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Khurais and Abqaiq.

As far as the Americans are concerned, the Trump administration appears to fear the repercussions of hitting or detaining tankers, especially since Tehran has sent clear signals that it will reciprocate if any such action happens. It has already followed its words with actions when it seized two British ships in response to London detaining an Iranian ship in the Strait of Gibraltar en route to the Syrian port of Tartus. That day, Britain’s status was damaged, and its government was forced to back down; the Iranian tanker, meanwhile, was able to complete its voyage to Syria.

READ: Third Iran oil tanker arrives in Venezuela despite US threats

Iran does not care if escalation with Washington reaches the “cliff edge”, which might well be exactly what it wants. This could be why it opted to send its tankers to the Caribbean, a route filled with America’s friends, fleets and bases from Hormuz via the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Bab Al-Mandab, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal before reaching the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic. If it gets away with its defiance without any US response, we can expect to hear shouts of victory. If the relationship between the two countries is then reduced to actions and reactions it could be a way to improve the conditions for new negotiations to end the sanctions and blockade imposed by Washington. Iran is ready to escalate, and is willing to, as long as the current impossible situation continues.

The Strait of Hormuz, Between Iran, Oman and the UAE

The Strait of Hormuz, Between Iran, Oman and the UAE [Flickr: eutrophication&hypoxia]

The ball is now in Washington’s court. It cannot be said that the Trump administration has exhausted all its options and decided to make clear its view on the Iranian challenge. The door is still open to punitive American action. If the tankers are not targeted en route to their destination, they may be hit on the return journey. Most predictions, however, suggest that Washington is not willing to enter into a cycle of this kind, especially since the president already has a full schedule of potential battles and wars from China and Venezuela to coronavirus, the media and the Democrats. Most recently, Twitter has stepped into his sights.

If the Iranian challenge passes without an American response of the same magnitude, it will encourage Tehran to throw down another gauntlet and operate more tankers and aircraft. Moreover, it will encourage other parties subject to US sanctions — amazingly, half of humanity is subject to varying forms of these sanctions — to do something similar. This means that not only is Washington’s reputation on the line, but also its ability to enforce its sanctions by force.

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This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 28 May 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.