As tensions with Iran began escalating last month, President Trump made a startling statement: The U.S. shouldn’t be bearing the burden of protecting the flow of oil tankers past Iranian waters and through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the principal assignments the U.S. has accepted for the last four decades.
Instead, he said, China and Japan depend far more on Persian Gulf oil than does the U.S. these days, so they should protect their own ships. “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!” the president tweeted.
As tensions mount further, thanks to Iran’s announcement over the weekend that it is breaking the level of uranium enrichmentagreed to in the 2015 deal restraining its nuclear program, Mr. Trump’s pronouncement is more relevant than ever. Iran has made clear in recent weeks that it has two weapons with which to fight back against crippling American economic sanctions: One is to scare the world by reviving its nuclear program. The other is to shake the world economy by blocking the flow of oil tankers carrying oil out through the Strait of Hormuz, a threat illustrated with attacks on a handful of tankers.
In response, Mr. Trump was asking, essentially: Why should we care, if we don’t need your region’s oil as much as we used to? It is a question that seems at once both reckless and perfectly reasonable—one a lot of Americans probably are asking themselves.
Yet the question also serves as notice that political leaders regularly need to remind Americans, and perhaps themselves, why they benefit from assuming the kind of world leadership role that includes protecting the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf.
The reasons the U.S. should still accept—indeed, should want—this role are both practical and geopolitical. The practical reasons start with the fact that the U.S. economy is still vulnerable to a disruption of oil supplies, from the Persian Gulf or anywhere else.
Oil is the ultimate fungible global product. If the price goes up for somebody because of a supply disruption, it goes up for everybody. The origin of the barrel of oil from which your gallon of gas is derived doesn’t really matter much in determining how much it costs. If there is a global shortfall, everybody pays the price, literally.
In that global marketplace, the Strait of Hormuz isn’t quite as important as it once was, but it is still very important. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that 21 million barrels of oil a day flowed through the Strait last year, or about 21% of the world’s total consumption.
Iran demanded the immediate release of one of its tankers impounded with the help of British forces in Gibraltar this week, an incident that has angered Tehran and exacerbated tensions between Iran and Western countries.
The British ambassador to Iran was summoned to the country’s foreign ministry Thursday night shortly after British Royal Marines assisted Gibraltar in the detention of an oil tanker that was bound for Syria in suspected violation of European Union sanctions. Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through an eight-year war.
A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told British Ambassador Robert Macaire that the tanker seizure was “tantamount to maritime piracy,” according to the ministry’s website. The official “stressed that Britain has no right to impose its own unilateral sanctions or those of the European Union in an extraterritorial manner against the other countries.”
A day earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the impounded tanker, named Grace 1, was carrying fuel from Iran, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. He didn’t say where the fuel was headed.
The U.K. Foreign Office didn’t comment on the meeting but in a statement Friday said it welcomed “this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime.”
Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled the tanker could be detained for 14 more days, the British territory’s government said Friday.
One British official said the ship was registered to a company in Lebanon. This is the first time the U.K. has seized a ship for violating sanctions against Syria. The Gibraltar police are now involved over deciding what to do with the crew and the ship.
Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, which advises the supreme leader, on Friday tweeted that Iran should seize a British tanker if the Iranian vessel isn’t released immediately.
“The Islamic Revolution has never initiated any battles in its 40-year history but has also never hesitated in responding to bullies,” Mr. Rezaei added on Twitter.
Recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman has raised the risk for oil tankers traveling through waters off Iran’s coast.
Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk , the world’s largest container shipper, on Thursday said it would raise prices for sending containers into the Persian Gulf, following similar moves from other major shipping companies.
In a statement, Maersk said it would charge an extra $42 per 20-foot container for shipments to some ports in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman.
The threat to U.K. ships has historical precedents. In 2007, Iran detained 15 U.K. Royal Navy personnel off the Iran-Iraq coast, alleging they had entered Iranian waters. The sailors were released 12 days later. Iran also in 2004 captured eight British sailors who were training Iraqi forces, releasing them after three days.
The unusual seizure of the Iranian vessel piles pressure on Tehran, which has tried to find ways to evade U.S. sanctions imposed with the aim of slashing the country’s oil exports to zero.
The incident in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, adds to growing acrimony between Iran and the EU, which doesn’t have broad sanctions in place against Iran. Tehran is moving toward a second violation of the 2015 nuclear accord on Sunday when it has said it would surpass limits imposed by that agreement on its uranium enrichment. The U.S. pulled out of the deal last year and then imposed sanctions on the country.
The U.K., which alongside Germany, France, China and Russia, remains a party to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, has worked to keep the pact alive. However the U.K. is caught in a delicate balancing act, defending the nuclear accord while sharing the White House’s concerns about Iran’s growing belligerence in the Middle East.
Tensions between the U.K. and Iran are already high. Britain has joined the U.S. in blaming Iran for attacks on oil tankers in May in the Gulf of Oman and is also campaigning for the release of several Iranian British dual nationals who have been detained in Iran. These include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was jailed in 2016 for spying, an activity she denies.
For its part, Iran has grown increasingly frustrated with European countries, demanding that they stand up to U.S. pressure and provide some relief from American sanctions. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said that based on its available information the tanker had been seized at the request of the U.S.
Gibraltar’s government denied that, saying its decision to board the tanker was “not at all based on extraneous political considerations” and not “taken at the political behest or instruction of any other state or of any third party.”
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton called the tanker seizure “excellent news,” tweeting on Thursday that “America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”
A British shipping executive with direct knowledge of the matter said the ship was tracked by American authorities, who informed the British.
The decline in oil sales has strained Iran’s economy. Its budget is based on the assumption that Iran would be able to export 1.5 million barrels a day, already a stark drop from the 2.5 million barrels it exported a day this time last year.
As U.S. sanctions have bitten harder than the Iranian leadership expected, Tehran has taken a more confrontational approach, and in June shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. Washington also accuses Iran of attacking six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a charge Iran denies.
In the wake of harsh sanctions by the Trump administration, Iran’s oil exports have fallen to around 230,000 barrels a day, mostly to China, according to a former Iran oil official.
A top adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Friday praised China for continuing to purchase Iranian oil.
“China has continued to buy our oil and will do this in the future,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser, said in an interview with Mr. Khamenei’s website.
Iranian government officials released photographs on Friday morning of what they said were fragments of the high-altitude surveillance drone retrieved from Iranian territorial waters. Iran continued to insist it shot the drone down after it violated the country’s airspace.
To bolster its claims, Iran had released video late Thursday of what it said was the moment the drone was shot down. A top Iranian commander also claimed on Twitter on Friday that a second American aircraft — a surveillance plane capable of carrying 35 passengers and crew members — had violated Iranian airspace. But he said the Iranian military chose not to shoot it down.
.. But a senior Trump administration official said there was concern inside the United States government about whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, or even the P-8A manned aircraft flown by a military aircrew, actually did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Mr. Trump called off the strike.
.. Mr. Trump, the experts said, has given hard-liners in Iran reason to support retaliation against the United States. They cited the recent attacks on oil tankers in waters near Iran.
The United States and Iran remain on a collision path. Here’s what President Trump should do.
President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.
He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.
He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.
He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.
Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.
In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran.
Trump says he called off military strikes on Thursday — thank goodness! — but he adheres to a failed policy that has put Iran back on a potential track to nuclear weapons. He is improvising, confusing friend and foe alike, even as he plays a perilous game of chicken with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Trump seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which his abandonment of the Obama nuclear deal with Iran, along with sanctions and bellicose tweets, will force Iran to roll up its nuclear program. Instead, Trump’s tactics have, quite predictably, led Iran to lash out.
Some Americans speak blithely about “surgical strikes,” and I fear that many Americans, including those in the White House, don’t get how badly these can go awry.
If we kill 150 Iranians in a set of airstrikes, as Trump says had been anticipated, Iranian proxy forces will retaliate by killing Americans in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Iran or its proxies might strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, while also interrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. We might see Hezbollah strikes on Israel and a new Israel-Lebanon war. The global economy could take a significant hit.
The conflict may start “surgical,” but it’s unlikely to end that way.
It’s essential that we clarify the location of the U.S. drone that Iran shot down, and delay any action until that question is resolved. Trump insists that the drone was in international airspace, while Iran says it had intruded over Iranian territory.
The Times quoted a senior administration official as acknowledging that it may in fact have violated Iranian airspace; if so and the administration is caught lying to the world, this will be an enormous self-inflicted blow. Iran’s decision to shoot down a drone in its own airspace would be understandable; certainly the United States would shoot down an Iranian drone that intruded over our territory.
The national security adviser, John Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly are pushing for military action. Both are longtime hawks, with Bolton urging in 2015 that “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” Bravo to uniformed officers in the Pentagon for pushing back and warning of the dangers of escalation.
I suggest this principle of foreign policy: Hawks who were completely wrong about Iraq should refrain from jingoism about Iran.
What can be done to reduce the risk of war? Here are four steps for Trump to take:
1. Ensure that U.S. forces fire only in clear self-defense or on presidential orders, to reduce the risk of an accident. In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down what the crew believed was a threatening Iranian military jet. In fact, the airplane was a civilian Iranian airliner, and all 290 people onboard were killed.
2. Try to organize an international force to protect ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This would present a united front against Iranian provocations and reduce the risk of a limpet mine starting a war.
3. Disentangle the United States from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have played a pernicious role (along with Israel) in encouraging belligerence toward Iran (the Senate took a landmark step in the right direction a few days ago by voting to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia). The blundering Saudi efforts to challenge Iran have so far backfired in Qatar, Lebanon and, most tragically, Yemen, so Trump should listen carefully to what the Saudi crown prince says — and then do the opposite.
4. Seek secret talks with Iran to patch back together the nuclear agreement.
These approaches may not succeed, but the stakes are high enough that they are worth trying. War is sometimes necessary; this is not one of those times.
Trump’s maximum pressure has been a failure in country after country, and I fear that his cancellation of airstrikes on Thursday may have simply deferred a military clash with Iran. The two countries remain on a collision path, with few face-saving exit ramps, and with hard-liners on each side escalating and empowering those on the other. Look out.