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Mysterious tanker incidents reinforce Iran's deterrent power

An Iranian-flagged tanker [INDONESIAN COAST GUARD / Anadolu Agency]
An Iranian-flagged tanker, 30 January 2021 [INDONESIAN COAST GUARD / Anadolu Agency]

A mysterious attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman has significantly raised tensions in the region, not only between Iran and Israel, but also involving the former and leading Western powers, the US and Britain. The incident on 29 July was followed by another equally mysterious incident five days later when a Panamanian-flagged ship was reportedly "hijacked" – albeit briefly – by unknown gunmen.

On both occasions the Western powers and Israel pointed accusing fingers at Iran without providing any evidence. The incidents occurred at a delicate time, with the backdrop of the transition of power in Iran which was completed yesterday with the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi.

At one level the ferocious reaction to the attack on the MV Mercer Street – which killed a British national and a Romanian – is an attempt by the US, Britain and Israel to test the new Iranian administration by throwing Iran on the defensive. At a deeper level, though, the incidents appear to be designed to generate long-term trends to contain Iran's assertive and confident foreign policy under newly-elected Raisi.

However, rather than reacting to US, British and Israeli provocation, Iran is likely to keep its composure and press ahead with reversing the lacklustre foreign policy of the past six years.

One of the more surprising features of the latest incidents in the Persian and Oman Gulfs is the tough position adopted by the UK on the pretext that a British national of Fijian origin had been killed in the drone strike on the tanker. Britain's most senior military officer, General Nick Carter, didn't mince his words when he said that his country should "retaliate" against Iran for the attack on the Mercer Street.

True to form, the British media establishment has supported the government's line by trying to develop a case against Iran. Britain's tabloid press went even further by concocting or exaggerating a story that UK Special Forces were planning a "kill or capture" mission against an "Iran-backed" team allegedly behind the attack on the vessel.

READ: Iran vows 'decisive' response to 'foolish' Israeli action

For the time being, Britain is leading the diplomatic effort by presenting the case against Iran to the UN Security Council today. However, in a sign that the British government is rowing back from its initial overreaction to the incident, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said that the door for diplomacy is "ajar".

There is no sign of any de-escalation on Israel's part, as demonstrated by Defence Minister Benny Gantz's threat to engage Iran militarily. Nevertheless, even on the Israeli front there is a realisation that Iran is simply too big to take on directly, hence Gantz's qualifying statement that the Zionist regime is trying to "mobilise the international community" against the Islamic Republic. "The world needs to deal with Iran, the region needs to deal with Iran, and Israel also needs to do its part in this situation," he insisted.

The "world", in the form of the UN Security Council, is unlikely to do anything about this issue in the absence of any evidence of Iran's alleged role on the attack on the Mercer Street.

While it is too early to comment definitively on the mysterious incidents over the past eight days, there does appear to be a provocative hand behind the attack on the Mercer Street and the alleged attempt to hijack the Asphalt Princess.

The latter's story is even stranger, not least because British sources – in the form of the Royal Navy-linked UK Maritime Trade Operations and Lloyds List editor Richard Meade – were at the forefront of issuing misleading information about the situation. Meade in particular was over-eager to implicate Tehran in the incident by tweeting that the Asphalt Princess had been ordered to sail towards Iran. Within hours however, the British sources were reporting that the incident was "complete" without providing any explanation.

Looking at the attack on the Mercer Street from another perspective, a veteran journalist sympathetic to the Axis of Resistance has implied that the strike by suicide drone(s) was an attempt by Iran and its allies to hit Israel at its most vulnerable point, namely in international waters. More broadly, there has been speculation that the strike on the Israeli-linked tanker was a response to an Israeli attack on Al-Dabaa Airport in the highly sensitive and strategic region of Qusayr in Syria.

READ: Iran's new president vows to enhance ties with Latin America

Whatever the truth of the matter, it appears Iran has prevailed in the diplomatic game of bluff and double bluff following the mysterious incidents in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Not only have the US, Britain and Israel failed to unite the international community against Iran on this issue – for they are reluctant to furnish evidence if, indeed, any actually exists – but more importantly they are also being forced to retreat from their initial ferocious reaction and maximalist demands.

By way of contrast, Iran staked out a clear position on the incidents from the beginning and warned the Western powers against any adventurism in the Persian Gulf. To reinforce its deterrent message, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Hossein Salami, travelled to the Gulf coast in the south of Iran and warned any would-be attackers about his country's "crushing" response to any "hostile acts".

If the intention of the US, Britain and Israel was either to stage a false flag operation or exploit a mysterious incident to send a message to Iran's newly-installed president, then that effort has backfired spectacularly. This was demonstrated by Raisi's calm, measured but combative inauguration speech.

Looking ahead, Iran and the Axis of Resistance are expected to adopt a more assertive posture following the changing of the guard in Tehran. Grandiose threats by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to disturb Iran's peace in its own capital city are unlikely to have the desired impact on President Raisi and the new teams that will be taking charge of foreign and national security policies.

In an early demonstration that the era of hit and run is truly over, the Lebanese Hezbollah responded to Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon by firing rockets at Israeli positions in the occupied Shebaa Farms. In the months ahead there is likely to be escalation across the region, but not on any terms imposed by the US, Britain or Israel.

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

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