If Iran Is Responsible for the Fuel Tanker Attacks in the Gulf of Oman (And It May Not Be), It Is Only a Reaction to Washington’s Outrageous Conduct in the Middle East
|June 17th, 2019|
The “Iranian leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.” – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, November 7, 2018.
Who is responsible for the recent attacks on the fuel tankers in the Gulf of Oman? Washington blames Iran, and has offered what it calls proof—a grainy video allegedly showing what are said to be Iranians removing what is said to be a mine from what is said to be the hull of a stricken tanker. But the video proves nothing more than someone removed, or appeared to remove, (not affixed but removed) something from the hull of a ship. Even The New York Times was skeptical of the video-graphic indictment. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo argued that the attacks could only have been carried out by a perpetrator with “a high level of expertise,” i.e., a state, and not just any state, but Iran. But the Times pointed out that “the video depicts a curiously haphazard operation, with an ill-advised placement of the mine on the ship, careless safety procedures to remove it and little effort to hide the activity.”  This is hardly what you would expect of a sophisticated perpetrator with a high level of expertise. That this so-called proof of Iranian culpability was provided by Pompeo, who in May crowed that as director of the CIA “we lied, cheated, and stole”  hardly makes the case more convincing.
On the other hand, while Iran fervently denies responsibility for the attacks, its denials carry little weight. The country has very good reason to disrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, and equally good reason to deny it is doing so. Iran is the target of an undeclared but hardly secret war by the United States and of efforts by Washington to reduce Iranian oil exports—the country’s major source of revenue—to zero. Tehran warned as long ago as 2011 that it would retaliate against efforts to block its oil shipments, and that it would do so by dint of lex talionis—that is, via the Old Testament justice of an eye for an eye.  The logic is clear. Since continued access to oil revenue is a sine qua non of Iran’s existence as a viable independent state, it cannot afford to allow the United States to sever it connections to the world economy. One of the few effective measures it can take to force Washington to back off is use its geostrategic position in the Gulf to disrupt the flow of oil on which US investors depend for profits and US allies depend for energy. Accordingly, Tehran has “repeatedly threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz if Iran isn’t allowed to export oil.”  The idea, then, that Iranian operatives may be behind the oil tanker attacks is hardly far-fetched. And, Iran’s leaders, hardly simpletons, would never willingly acknowledge responsibility, since an admission would quickly be turned by Washington into a casus belli.
This isn’t to say that Iran is indeed the perpetrator; only that it may be the perpetrator, and that if it is, the fact that it is, is entirely predictable. As William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration put it, “If the Iranians were responsible for the attacks on shipping in the gulf, it is … a predictable consequence of an American coercive diplomacy strategy.”  What’s more, considering the nature of the undeclared US war on Iran—one led by a program of what Iranian foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif aptly calls ‘economic terrorism’—Iranian retaliation against US-allied shipping is not only predictable, but legitimate, as one of the few, if not only, means available to the Iranian state to safeguard its existence against an unprovoked attack by the United States.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in May, 2018, Pompeo issued a list of 12 demands to Iran,  reducible to three overarching requirements:
End support for opponents of US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia;
Abandon the Syrian government in its fight against a Western-backed Sunni Islamist insurgency;
Forebear from enriching uranium and developing ballistic missiles, activities that could provide the basis for a militarized nuclear self-defense in posse.
In short, Pompeo demanded that Iran capitulate to a US dictatorship over the region.
There is only a vanishingly small chance that the current government in Tehran, which is constitutionally opposed to monarchy (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, hence, Washington’s Arab allies), European settler colonialism (Israel), and submission to US tyranny, will prostrate itself before Pompeo’s diktats. Which means the only way Washington could possibly achieve Iranian compliance is by replacing the country’s current government with a regime of marionettes. While Washington denies it seeks regime change in Tehran, Brett McGurk, the former US envoy for the fight against ISIS, acknowledges the obvious. “Trump may not even realize it, but particularly since the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser last year, his administration has been pursuing what are effectively regime-change policies in not one but three countries: Venezuela, Syria, and Iran.” McGurk explains that while the United States is not explicitly calling for regime change, it is pursuing policies “that, if carried to their logical conclusion, necessitate a change of government.” 
There is no doubt that, its denials notwithstanding, Washington seeks regime change in Iran. Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill points out that Pompeo’s 12 demands are “effectively impossible for Iran to accommodate without fundamentally changing its leadership and system of government.”  Pompeo admitted to “Michael J. Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., that the administration’s strategy would not coerce Iranian leaders into a friendlier stance. But, he said, ‘I think what can change is, the people can change the government.’”  In other words, since the current government is unlikely to bow to US demands, a new government must be installed, one willing to pander to US requirements. This accords with the thinking of US national security advisor John Bolton. In July 2017, Bolton opined, “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.’”  If any further proof is needed that Washington is pursuing a regime change program, consider this:
Bolton has long been on record as demanding regime change in Iran. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” Bolton said before being hired by US president Donald Trump.  Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, argues that given Bolton’s very clear positions, “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”  “In May 2018, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told reporters that the administration is ‘committed to regime change’ in Iran.” 
Bolton “warned Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, after the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution, that he should not expect ‘many more to enjoy’ (suggesting that Khamenei may be gone in a year).” 
Pompeo has referred to the US “effort to make sure that the Iranian people get control of their capital”  and has “suggested the Iranian public could take matters into its own hands.” 
If the US goal of regime change in Iran isn’t secret, then neither are the means by which Washington intends to achieve its objective. The methods are clearly spelled out in open source documents and have been reported widely in the US news media. In sum, the United States seeks to recruit Iranian citizens en masseas US agents of regime change. The goal is to induce Iranian citizens to “take matters into [their] own hands” and “get control of their capital.” The lash that will drive them to do this, according to the plan, will be the misery created by US efforts to destroy the Iranian economy, chiefly by driving Iran’s oil revenue to zero, a goal to be achieved by threatening secondary sanctions on any country that does business with the Islamic Republic. Driven by economic desperation, Iranians will channel their energies into movements to overthrow the government, facilitated by a CIA-led program of subversion, if the plan proves successful. At the same time, the CIA will stir up unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, adding to the maelstrom.
Washington has subjected Iran to what Pompeo calls “the strongest sanctions in history,”  which he describes “as being calculated to produce domestic political unrest in Iran.”  “What Mr. Trump and his team are trying to do,” observed The Wall Street Journal, “is to use economic sanctions to generate unprecedented pressure on Iran … to create enough economic distress in Iran that the regime could buckle under the weight of popular discontent.” 
Whether the sanctions are the strongest in history, as Pompeo claims, is unclear. But what is clear is that they attack the length and breadth of the Iranian economy. The United States “has sanctioned the oil sector, the metals industry and military leaders by cutting them off from the American-led international financial system. To compel unhappy allies to go along, it has threatened to cut off their companies as well if they continue doing business with Iran.” 
More “than 700 Iranian banks, companies and individuals, have been targeted.  And Washington imposed “sanctions that would severely penalize any foreign or U.S. company that does business with Iran.”  The US goal is to completely cut off all Iranian oil sales  and to blockade the country economically.
Iran’s foreign secretary calls the sanctions economic terrorism, and with good reason. If terrorism is the threat, or infliction, of harm on civilians in order to achieve political ends, then the US measures clearly constitute terrorism. There’s no doubt that the measures are intended to achieve the political goal of regime change; that they’re intended to pressure Iranian civilians; and that they’re causing harm to civilians.
As a result of US economic coercion, Iran’s economy is cratering, according to The Wall Street Journal.  The New York Times says the Iranian economy is “reeling from sanctions”  and that it is “in a bad state.”  Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, says his country is facing the worst economic challenge in forty years. 
US economic warfare on Iran has caused the value of the country’s currency, the rial, to plunge.  This, in turn, has “led to a sharp increase in the prices of imported goods.”  “By raising the cost of imports, the currency collapse” has sparked a massive inflation. Inflation is running at 40 per cent.  Inflation has bankrupted businesses and put many imported goods, such as critical medicines, beyond the reach of ordinary Iranians.  The IMF predicts that the economy will continue to undergo significant contraction.  In turn, the misery of ordinary Iranians will increase.
The cratering of the Iranian economy by itself creates the possibility of social unrest, but leaving nothing to chance, Washington has established a CIA program to help the process along. “In 2017, John Bolton—not yet national security adviser—recommended in a memo to President Trump that the U.S. support ‘internal resistance’ and minorities inside Iran,” according to The Wall Street Journal.  As it turned out, the administration was already working along these lines. HR McMaster, Bolton’s predecessor as national security advisor, had “signed and put out a 27-page methodical Iran strategy with two prongs. The first was…a subversion campaign to influence Iran’s population. The second was confrontation,” according to Bob Woodward, in his book about the Trump White House, Fear.  The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman had reported in June 2017 that the US president had “appointed to the National Security Council hawks eager to contain Iran and push regime change, the groundwork for which would most likely be laid through C.I.A. covert action.” According to the reporters, “Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the council’s senior director for intelligence — the main White House liaison to intelligence agencies” had told other administration officials that he wanted “to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government.” Appointed to lead the subversion operation was Michael D’Andrea, “the Central Intelligence Agency officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden.” D’Andrea goes by the sobriquets “Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike.” 
In late December 2017 and early January 2018 economic “problems and political complaints led to a wave of public protests in more than 100 Iranian cities.”  Trump aides pointed “to outbursts of protest in the streets of Iranian cities as a sign that, maybe” Pompeo’s “strongest sanctions in history” were producing their intended effect. One senior administration aide acknowledged “that the protests are ’sporadic’ and without any central organization, but” said: “In a hundred cities and towns in the country there is enormous dissatisfaction.”  According to The New York Times, “with runaway inflation, broad economic problems and labor unrest, the Iranian government believes its popularity is weakening.” 
Bolton had also called on Washington to foment secessionist unrest among “minorities inside Iran.”  Ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis, account for one-third or more of Iran’s population,  and uprisings by these communities could substantially add to the chaos already occasioned by Washington’s economic war on the Persian Gulf state. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Iran’s non-Persian ethnic groups, once relatively quiet, are increasingly discontented with the regime,” and that the “wave of protests across much of the country … has been strongest in the predominantly non-Persian districts.”  “Kurdish groups have been clashing with Iranian forces with increasing frequency in the northwest, where most of Iran’s roughly 8 million Kurds live.” To the south, Arab separatists launched a September 2018 attack on a military parade in Iran’s main oil hub. Meanwhile, “to the east, insurgents fighting for greater autonomy or independence for the Baluch people of Iran have hit military posts in an area bordering Pakistan.” 
Bad enough as these malign US actions are, US economic terrorism and CIA subversion are only two layers of a palimpsest of US aggression, overlaid upon ongoing US military pressure. As The New York Times notes, “The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf. American forces are deployed in Iraq to the east, Afghanistan to the west and in other regional neighbors including Turkey, Bahrain and Qatar.”  Iran is hemmed in by hostile US forces.
The country has also been the target of a major US cyberwarfare effort. “In the early years of the Obama administration,” wrote David E. Sanger and Mark Mezzetti in The New York Times, “the United States developed an elaborate plan for a cyberattack on Iran in case the diplomatic effort to limit its nuclear program failed and led to a military conflict. The plan, according to the reporters, is “code-named Nitro Zeus,” and is “devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid.” At its zenith, “the planning for Nitro Zeus involved thousands of American military and intelligence personnel, spending tens of millions of dollars and placing electronic implants in Iranian computer networks to ‘prepare the battlefield,’ in the parlance of the Pentagon.” 
Earlier, the United States’ “fast-growing ranks of secret cyberwarriors” had blown up nuclear centrifuges in Iran in an effort to prevent the country from acquiring a latent nuclear weapons capability that could be actualized in an emergency to defend itself. “The attacks on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, begun in the George W. Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games, destroyed roughly 1,000 centrifuges and set back the Iranians by a year or so,” according to The New York Times. 
Recently, Washington has ratchetted up its military pressure on Iran, sending a carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, “and its accompanying ships as well as what is known as a bomber task force to the region.”  The US warship carries more than 40 F-18 Super Hornets, which are “now conducting ‘persistent presence’ missions in international airspace near Iran,”  that is, unremitting patrols along the edge of Iranian airspace with one purpose: intimidation. “The U.S. also is sending the amphibious assault ship USS Arlington to the Middle East. The ship carries U.S. marines, amphibious vehicles and helicopters that can be used in a range of military operations.” 
Additionally, “Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East.” Some US officials dismiss the plans as a scare tactic,  a bluff designed to frighten the Iranians. But bluff or not, the intent is to intimidate, and is thus part of the undeclared war on Iran.
If Iran is indeed responsible for disrupting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf (and it may not be), its actions are only the predictable consequence of the multilayered US aggression. What’s more, attacks on Persian Gulf shipping may be the only practicable means by which Iran can defend itself against a threat to its very existence as a viable independent state. What recourse has Iran to avert the complete collapse of its economy, and the starvation of its citizens, while retaining its independence, but to carry out deniable attacks on Persian Gulf shipping to disrupt the tranquil digestion of US oil company profits and uninterrupted delivery of oil supplies to US allies? Despite the promises of the European Union to rescue Iran from economic collapse by way of a financial mechanism that would allow the country to circumvent the US blockade, Brussels has failed to deliver. “These days, the biggest, baddest weapon in the American arsenal isn’t a missile, or a tank, or a fighter jet. It is America’s economic clout,” observes The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib.  The Iranians, it seems, are on their own, fated to mount a defense against the economic clout of the world’s largest economy and the military clout of the planet’s biggest war machine.
US chauvinists will retort that while the war on Iran is undeclared and may be reasonably described as terrorism that it is, all the same, justifiable as a measure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, to say nothing of pressuring Tehran to curb its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Syrian government, and to cease its opposition to Israel and Saudi Arabia. There is insufficient space to reply in full here, except to make the following points:
If Iran had ever been working on a militarized nuclear program, it abandoned the work as long ago as 2003, according to the US intelligence community. 
If Iran embarks on a militarized nuclear program, it will be the predictable consequence of ongoing US and Israeli military pressure.
If the United States, Israel, Britain, France, and other countries can maintain nuclear arsenals in order, they say, to protect themselves from nuclear blackmail, why should that option be permanently foreclosed to Iran (or any other country whose sovereignty is outraged by more militarily formidable opponents)? If nuclear weapons are to be counted among the military equipment available to imperialist powers and settler colonial states, should they not also be available to states seeking to defend themselves against the formers’ predations?
Using pressure to coerce Iran to alter its foreign policy to accommodate US needs is an act of imperialism and a violation of Iran’s independence, to say nothing of its being an incentive to Iran to develop the nuclear weapons Washington claims it seeks to prevent Iran from developing.
Iran’s foreign policy is rooted in the country’s opposition to monarchy and European settler colonialism, along with its intolerance of Western domination of the Muslim world. Since most of Washington’s Arab allies collude in the US tyranny over West Asia, and since most of its Arab allies are monarchies, and since Israel is a settler colonial state, Iran, quite naturally, finds itself at odds with Washington’s satraps in the region, and allied to Syria and movements opposed to Israeli apartheid and US dictatorship. It ought to be clear who the good guys are in this struggle—or at the very least, who they aren’t. Iran may not be on the right side of every progressive struggle, but it is clearly on the right side of this one—a struggle against three of humanity’s most abhorrent institutions: monarchy, settler colonialism, and empire.
1 Quoted in “Iran letter to the UNSG and UNSC on Pompeo provocative statement,” Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 30, 2018.
2 Mark Landler, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Puts Iran on Notice and Weighs Response to Attack on Oil Tankers,” The New York Times, June 14, 2019.
4 David E. Sanger and Annie Lowrey, “Iran threatens to block oil shipments, as U.S. prepares sanctions,” The New York Times, December 27, 2011.
5 Benoit Faucon, Costas Paris, and Summer Said, “Gulf of Oman attacks trigger together security on key shipping routes,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2019.
6 David E. Sanger and Edward Wong, “After placing blame for attacks, Trump faces difficult choices on confronting Iran,” The New York Times, June 13, 2019.
7 Michael R. Gordon, “US lays out demands for new Iran deal,” The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2018.
8 Brett McGurk, “American foreign policy adrift: Pompeo is calling for realism—Trump isn’t delivering,” Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2019.
9 Edward Wong, “Trump pushes Iraq to stop buying energy from Iran,” The New York Times, February 11, 2019.
10 Vivian Yee, “US sanctions cut deep, but Iran seems unlikely to budge,” The New York Times, May 12, 2019.
11 Walter Russel Mead, “Trump’s Iran gambit,” The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2018.
12 Patrick Cockburn, “The mysterious ‘sabotage’ of Saudi oil tankers is a dangerous moment in Trump’s pumped up feud with Iran,” The Independent, May 13, 2019.
13 David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris, “’America First’ bears a new threat: military force,” The New York Times, March 24, 2018.
14 Walter Russel Mead, “Trump’s Iran gambit,” The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2018.
15 Brett McGurk, “American foreign policy adrift: Pompeo is calling for realism—Trump isn’t delivering,” Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2019.
16 Edward Wong and Ben Hubbard, “Pompeo’s anti-Iran tour faces obstacles of a fractious Middle East,” The New York Times, January 14, 2019.
17 Ian Talley, “US toughens stance on future Iran oil exports,” The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2018.
18 Michael R. Gordon, “US lays out demands for new Iran deal,” The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2018.
19 Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Eric Schmitt, “Trump tells Pentagon chief he does not want war with Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2019.
20 Gerald F. Seib, “Amid the fog, Trump’s real agenda in Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2019.
21 Gerald F. Seib, “The risks in overusing America’s big economic weapon,” The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2019.
22 Ian Talley and Courtney McBride, “As new Iran sanctions loom, US aims to plug gaps,” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2018.
23 Greg Ip, “Trump trade levers test long-term US alliances,” The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2019.
24 Ian Talley and Courtney McBride, “As new Iran sanctions loom, US aims to plug gaps,” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2018.
25 Grep Ip, “Trump trade levers test long-term US alliances,” The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2019.
26 Edward Wong and Clifford Krauss, “US moves to stop all nations from buying Iranian oil, but China is defiant,” The New York Times, April 22, 2019.
27 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran is changing, but not in ways Trump thinks,” The New York Times, June 25, 2018.
28 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran faces worst economic challenge in 40 years, president says,” The New York Times, January 30, 2019.
29 Sune Engel Rasmussen and Michael R. Gordon, “Iran defies US bid to curb its Middle East influence,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2018.
30 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran is changing, but not in ways Trump thinks,” The New York Times, June 25, 2018.
31 Patrick Cockburn, “The mysterious ‘sabotage’ of Saudi oil tankers is a dangerous moment in Trump’s pumped up feud with Iran,” The Independent, May 13, 2019.
32 Edward Wong and Clifford Krauss, “US moves to stop all nations from buying Iranian oil, but China is defiant,” The New York Times, April 22, 2019; Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran’s economic crisis drags down the middle class almost overnight,” The New York Times, December 26, 2018.
33 Patrick Cockburn, “Europe doesn’t have the power to be much more than a spectator in the escalating US-Iran conflict,” The Independent, May 11, 2019.
34 Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan, “Iranian groups press for rights—and Tehran hits back,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2018.
35 Bob Woodward. Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon & Shuster. 2018. p. 133.
36 Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman, “CIA names the ‘dark prince’ to run Iran operations, signaling a tougher stance,” The New York Times, June 2, 2017.
37 Asa Fitch, “New unrest roils Iran as US ramps up pressure,” The Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2018.
38 Gerald F. Seib, “Amid the fog, Trump’s real agenda in Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2019.
39 Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon builds deterrent force against possible Iranian attack,” The New York Times, May 10, 2019.
40 Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan, “Iranian groups press for rights—and Tehran hits back,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2018.
41 Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan, “Iranian groups press for rights—and Tehran hits back,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2018.
42 Walter Russel Mead, “Trump’s Iran gambit,” The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2018.
43 Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan, “Iranian groups press for rights—and Tehran hits back,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2018.
44 Rick Gladstone, “Iran’s missile tests and the nuclear deal,” The New York Times, March 10, 2016.
45 David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. had cyberattack plan if Iran nuclear dispute led to conflict,” The New York Times, February 16, 2016.
46 David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. cyberweapons, used against Iran and North Korea, are a disappointment against ISIS,” The New York Times, June 12, 2017.
47 Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon, “US deploys forces to Mideast to deter Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2019.
48 Gordon Lubold, “US commander weighs an expanded Mideast force to counter Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2019.
49 Nancy A. Yousef, “US bolsters its Gulf defense to counter Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2019.
50 Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes, “White House reviews military plans against Iran, in echoes of Iraq war,” The New York Times, May 13, 2019.
51 Gerald F. Seib, “The risks in overusing America’s big economic weapon,” The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2019.
52 David E. Sanger, “US says Iran could expedite nuclear bomb,” The New York Times, September 10, 2009.
Feature photo | An oil tanker is on fire in the sea of Oman, June 13, 2019. Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked last Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift. Photo | ISNA
Stephen Gowans is a Canadian-based political activist and foreign policy analyst. He is the author of Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East (Spring 2019); Patriots, Traitors and Empires; and Washington’s Long War on Syria. Visit his personal blog at gowans.blog.
Published with special permission from the author
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.