On Tuesday there was an attempted hijacking of a tanker in the Gulf of Oman. According to the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), nine armed men boarded a Panama-flagged tanker before leaving several hours later – reportedly after the ship’s crew sabotaged the vessel’s engines. The UK believes this attempted hijacking was the latest in a string of maritime attacks perpetrated by Iran or one of the several militant groups it backs in the Middle East.
The failed hijacking follows a drone attack last week on the tanker Mercer Street in the Arabian sea, which is owned in part by the Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer. This attack claimed the lives of British and Romanian nationals onboard the ship. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz pointed the finger at Iran after the ship was targeted, calling it ‘an attack on the world.’
In recent years, Iran has mainly targeted ships with links to Israel. But attacks on international targets are becoming increasingly common, spilling out of Iran and Israel’s ‘shadow war’ at sea. Any response is usually met with threats from Tehran that a retaliation will be met with more force.
Tehran is playing a dangerous game. Talks with the US over a return to the nuclear deal have stalled, and the two sides are now using different tactics to gain leverage. American officials have been stating publicly that they are pessimistic about the talks in an attempt to pressure Iran’s leaders to agree to a more restrictive deal. Iran, conversely, has chosen a policy of maritime brinkmanship. This foreign policy approach – using aggressive actions that could lead to military confrontation in a bid to gain advantage in negotiations or force diplomatic outcomes before a confrontation occurs – is an age-old practice that requires precision. It means walking on the edge of a cliff without falling off it.
The main goal of Iran’s maritime aggression is to send a message to the US: return to the deal or we will soon be dangerously out of control. Iran desperately needs the sanctions against it lifted. Years of sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy – a situation made worse after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Iranian oil exports went down significantly and inflation has increased, hitting the living standards of the majority of the population who have seen their income fall but the price of food go up. The IMF has estimated Iran’s unemployment rate to be at least 12 per cent. The leadership is worried that the economic hardship will bring political turmoil and civil unrest that could destabilise the government itself. The decision to step up its aggression at sea seems a desperate attempt to force a deal, even as it risks covert and overt strikes from Israel.
Iran’s attacks on ships and tankers are strategically taking place on main shipping routes for oil and other goods, threatening regional stability and the economic interests of the US, the UK and other western counties. These attacks have been happening for a couple of years now. In 2019, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized a British tanker near the Strait of Hormuz after an Iranian oil tanker was stopped near Gibraltar for being in breach of EU sanctions. Last week's deadly drone attack on Mercer Street, however, was a miscalculation. It is possible that the plan was not intended to cause death, only to damage the ship. But the attack has enraged the UK, US, Romania and Israel, with the former head of the British armed forces, General Sir Nick Carter calling it a ‘big mistake’ that could lead to escalation.
If Tehran is to continue with its current strategy, it has to avoid these kinds of mistakes. Causing civilian casualties when hijacking tankers can backfire, and lead the other side to entrench itself further. Iran’s leaders, including its fanatic, anti-western President Ebrahim Raisi, are not willing to compromise on a deal that will place the country under more stringent restrictions than the nuclear deal abandoned by Trump. The 2015 nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), restricted uranium enrichment at levels too low to be able to create a bomb, but it did not restrict Iran’s other threats: its long-range missiles, its support for regional and international terrorism, and its actions which undermine regional security and stability in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen.
President Biden is now seeking a stronger deal with Iran. He also seems to have less patience for Iranian aggression than President Obama, who was willing to overlook Tehran’s nefarious activities as long as the terms of the nuclear deal were implemented.
The deal that Biden is looking for won’t do enough to curtail Iran’s revolutionary, expansionist agenda. But Iran won’t even accept this and so both sides are at a standstill – with Iran increasingly willing to take risks that make the region’s international waterways more dangerous and the region more unstable.