23 April 2020   Leave a comment

Yesterday, US President Trump tweeted that US naval forces will retaliate if Iranian “fast boats” threaten them: “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea” (one should note that gunboats do not fly and therefore cannot be “shot down”). In response, Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted an equally provocative message: “The US military is hit by over 5000 #covid19 infections. @realdonaldtrump should attend to their needs, not engage in threats cheered on by Saddam’s terrorists. Also, US forces have no business 7,000 miles away from home, provoking our sailors off our OWN Persian Gulf shores.” The exchange comes after Iranian vessels came dangerously close to US naval forces in the Persian Gulf last Wednesday. Iran does not have the ability to confront US naval forces directly and has instead chosen to employ “guerrilla-type” tactics of harassing US vessels with small, but very fast boats. The US vessels cannot know if those Iranian vessels have weapons, such as missiles, which could inflict significant, but not fatal, damage. You can view a video of the confrontation here.

The confrontations come after a relatively quiet period in US-Iranian relations after some tense moments last January. And the Pentagon was quick to note that President Trump’s tweet did not affect the rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf–US naval vessels always operate with the understanding that they have the right of self-defense. The question is why the mood has changed so dramatically so quickly. Both countries are dealing with serious outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus, and Colin P. Clarke and Ariane Tabatabai, writing in Vox, suggest the following:

“So why, in the midst of grappling with an out-of-control pandemic and an economy in free fall, would Tehran devote time and money to fighting the US? The answer, at least in part, is that the Iranian government believes the United States is particularly weak right now, too.

“With Washington’s ineptitude on full display in its domestic response to the coronavirus, few people outside of a select group of Iran hawks — which includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have much of an appetite for continued clashes with Iranian proxies in Iraq or incidents with the IRGC in the Persian Gulf right now.”

The authors point out how the pandemic has affected US military forces all over the world:

“The coronavirus pandemic sweeping throughout the world has led the United States to draw down its forces, repositioning soldiers within Iraq and consolidating troops to fewer bases. US special forces soldiers have been withdrawn from some of the world’s most dangerous active conflict zones, leaving local host-nation forces to contend with an array of well-equipped and battle-hardened terrorists, insurgents, and militias.

“This has presented Iran with a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate its control in Iraq and push the US entirely out. And the country’s leaders aren’t going to squander their chance.”

Additionally, Iran launched what it described as a “military satellite” which was a demonstration of its ballistic missile capabilities, an issue that the US regards as highly provocative. Jane’s, a highly regarded military journal, quotes a high-ranking US military official:

“The United States did not immediately confirm the launch’s success, but General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left little doubt that Iran had put a satellite into orbit.

“‘There’s a lot that has to happen before a satellite becomes operational or whether it even works or not and it takes a long time to characterise that because it goes around the world,’ he said during a press conference later that day. ‘By this time tomorrow I imagine, if I was to stand up in front of you, I could explain exactly what was going on, whether it was successful or not. I just don’t have that information yet.’

“‘What I can tell you is that it went a very long way, and if you have a missile that goes a very long way, whether it works or not, puts a satellite into space or not, [it] means it has the ability, once again, to threaten their neighbours, our allies,’ he added.”

There is also President Trump’s concern over the health of the US fossil fuel industry which has been hammered by overproduction by Saudi Arabia which seeks to undermine the production of US shale oil. The threat of open conflict in the Persian Gulf had a dramatic effect on the price of oil in the world. The Maritime Executive notes the effect:

“At the moment of the tweet, the NYMEX West Texas Intermediate (WTI) front-month contract – the benchmark for American crude oil – was trading at about $11.52 per barrel. It began a rally about 20 minutes later, and by 0945 it had risen about 40 percent to peak at $16.12 per barrel. The increase is believed to reflect investor optimism that instability in the Strait of Hormuz could restrict Persian Gulf oil shipments, thereby reducing supply in a glutted market.”

Unfortunately, both Iran and the US have an interest in stoking an international confrontation to distract their populations from the horrors of the pandemic and the damage it is doing to their economies. It is doubtful that either side really wish to go to war under these circumstances, but dialing up the rhetoric always runs the risk of miscalculation and misunderstandings.

Posted April 23, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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