An Iranian naval vessel attempts to control a fire on the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker after it was attacked on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman. Photo: Tasnim News / AFP

The attacks on two tankers laden with petroleum products in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday may have been designed to highlight the risks of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, analysts told Asia Times on Friday.

The US accused Iran of being behind the attacks, a charge Tehran has vehemently denied.

But this kind of non-lethal warning, which caused a spike in oil prices, has been in the hardline Iranian playbook since the Trump administration signaled it would take steps to squeeze the Islamic republic’s ability to sell its petroleum.

“It was being debated even before the oil waivers were revoked [in November], but largely as a possible response to an attempt to zero [eliminate] Iran’s exports,” an Iranian source told Asia Times on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

“The idea was to raise costs for global markets and the Gulf states to get them to more directly intercede with Trump” and to drive home the potential fallout of US sanctions, the source said.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan (L) chats with US President Donald Trump during a meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh in May 2017. Photo: Bandar al-Jaloud/ Saudi Royal Palace / AFP

President Donald Trump’s administration sees the Saudi heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Emirati de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ, as the pillars of American policy – and arms deals – in the region, and the goal would have been to make them feel economic pain.

“If MBZ tells Trump that it’s time to slow down the maximum pressure policy that is very different than [Japanese President Shinzo] Abe calling for negotiations,” the source said.

The Japanese leader – who visited Tehran on a mission to reduce tensions – instead got a front-row seat to the rising risks of the shipping business, in which the G-7 nation has a major interest. Just as news surfaced that the Japan-operated Kokuka Courageous was forced to evacuate its crew, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was telling Abe that he would not be dignifying Trump with talks.

Limits of pressure

The latest attacks came exactly one month after a similar non-lethal incident against four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Washington also blamed Iran for those attacks, though a Security Council report earlier this month stopped short of naming the Islamic republic.

The latest incidents have yet to be independently investigated.

However, US Central Command released video footage on Thursday which purports to show an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ patrol boat removing a limpet mine from the side of the Kokuka Courageous – ostensibly to maintain plausible deniability and prevent an American military escalation.

Iran does not want the situation in the region to escalate, but it is increasingly being forced into a corner by US economic pressure, according to Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert and fellow at The Century Foundation.

If the latest attacks were found to have been carried out by Iranian forces, it would be consistent with their modus operandi, she said: “The damage was done above the hull of the ship, so clearly the point was to avoid death, but […] show that it is capable of doing something like this, and won’t hesitate to do it if it needs to.”

Indeed, the crew members of both ships were safely evacuated on Thursday, some by the US and others by Iran. But the vessels were carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of petroleum products, and one of them burned for hours after the attack.

The US initially granted waivers to eight allied importers of Iranian oil for its sanctions instituted in November of last year but has since revoked them, making matters worse for the flailing Iranian economy. In turn, Tehran has raised the long-threatened prospect that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow outlet of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s oil passes.

“Iran has made these threats for the better part of the last 20 to 30 years. It hasn’t followed through on it because it would also inhibit its ability to ship its oil abroad, so closing it would be counterintuitive,” said Esfandiary.  “However, given that the US is deliberately trying to shut off all avenues of Iran exporting its oil, it doesn’t stand to lose as much if it closes the strait.”

Rather, the Gulf monarchies would be at the greatest risk should a conflict break out. “This is why the Emiratis have been urging for restraint since the last tanker attacks a few weeks ago,” she said.

The Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, also acknowledged the possible strategy behind the attacks. “The latest incidents appear aimed at demonstrating the vulnerability of Gulf shipping while damaging confidence in the US ability to protect freedom of navigation,” it said.

In an interview on Friday, Trump said he was seeking talks with Iran: “We want to get them back to the table if they want to get back. I’m in no rush.”

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