What does a war with Iran look like? Is it American boots storming through the streets of Isfahan? Is it bombs dropping over Tehran? Maybe it’s a murky proxy war fought on the fringes of Iranian territory? Or perhaps Tanker War Part 2: Electic Boogaloo? These are questions worth asking after last week’s events.
But first, in case you’ve been living in media-free bliss, on Thursday of last week, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman suffered mysterious explosions in their hulls. Not long after, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a news conference in which he accused Iran of attacking the ships. Pompeo presented no hard evidence during the news conference, although he did reference a video that he said confirmed the Iranians’ responsibility. Several hours later, seemingly in response to a public uproar over the absence of said evidence, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) released the video. The grainy footage showed an IRGC boat pulling up alongside one of the damaged tankers to remove what Pompeo and the U.S. military claimed was an unexploded mine. In the administration’s view, this was clearly intended as smoking-gun proof of Iran’s responsibility for the attacks.
Iranian officials immediately and vociferously denied responsibility and denounced the accusations. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote in a tweet, “Suspicious doesn’t even begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” highlighting the fact that one of the attacks was against a Japan-owned tanker at the same time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. The Japanese operator of one of the victimized ships, citing testimony from the crewmembers, said that the boat had been struck by a “flying object,” which further cast doubt on the theory that a sea mine had been the cause of the explosion.
The United Kingdom and, predictably, Saudi Arabia and Israel backed the American claims of Iranian responsibility. In a statement, the UK Foreign Office wrote, “It is almost certain that a branch of the Iranian military — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — attacked the two tankers on 13 June. No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible.” The rest of the world, meanwhile, remains unconvinced. Several EU member states have publicly questioned the American narrative, requesting more evidence and urging all involved to exercise “maximum restraint.”
As ever, it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction at this point. Neither the U.S. nor Iran has presented any definitive proof of guilt or innocence. In fairness, the burden of proof should reasonably fall more on the accuser than the accused, but that’s rarely how things work in practice in the realm of international relations. The CENTCOM video is ambiguous, at best. Bellingcat offered analysis that suggested that the boat was, in fact, Iranian, but stopped short of affirming that the activity portrayed the blurry footage was a mine removal operation. Pointing out what should have already been obvious, they noted that a video showing Iran removing a mine is not proof that Iran put it there in the first place. Setting aside the tragic history of the United States’ record in making the case for war the Middle East, the idiosyncrasies of more recent American accusations of Iranian guilt offer more than enough reason to be skeptical now. It’s probably safe to assume at this point that the only thing this video has and will accomplish is to reaffirm preexisting biases.
But make no mistake: the Iran-U.S. war is already underway, and it’s only likely to get worse from here. At this stage, however, progress cannot be measured in blood, treasure, or territory. The real war, right now, is for control of the narrative.
It’s this battle within a battle that will ultimately define this conflict and shape its future course. The Trump Administration — and, more specifically, the hawk contingent led by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — is attempting to paint Iran as a saboteur crippling the world oil market more out of spite than strategic necessity. It’s a simple enough story to understand, and it reinforces many of the biases everyday Americans — that is, people who don’t pay close attention to Iranian or Middle Eastern politics — harbor about the Islamic Republic: duplicitous, vengeful, and ideologically driven to the point of self-harm. In this telling, Iran, furious at the United States’ efforts to curtail its regional influence by eliminating its oil trade revenues, lashes out at international tankers off its coastline, thereby disrupting shipping lanes and, by extension, the global oil supply. It’s a “If I can’t get mine, you can’t have yours” mentality adopted as a guiding military philosophy.
The Iranian version of events is more reactive but still entirely in-character. Per usual, Tehran is indulging its instinct toward conspiracy theorizing, albeit slightly more subtly than in crises past. Foreign Minister Zarif’s Twitter statement in the wake of the attacks is a perfect encapsulation of this mentality. It suggests, without expressly stating anything, that the attack against a Japanese tanker at the same time that Iran’s Supreme Leader is meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in the highest-profile diplomatic visit to Tehran in years is a bit too convenient to be taken at face value. To be fair, he has a point: of all the boats in the water, why take a pot shot at the Japanese one just to add an extra dose of insult to a guest? It’s not particularly Iranian behavior.
What makes this scenario more difficult to accept is that Iran already has a plan in motion to retaliate against U.S. sanctions by gradually suspending its commitments to the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). Today, the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced that Iran will be taking additional steps to restart its uranium enrichment program and that it will surpass the limits set on its stockpiles by the JCPOA within ten days. This follows Iran’s announcement from the first week of May — several days before the first set of tanker attacks — that it would be reducing its commitments under the JCPOA in response to U.S. actions.
Kamalvandi also warned that starting from July 7 Iran could resume enriching uranium up to the 20% level, placing it a step closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels. These actions are designed to put pressure on Europe to provide Iran with tangible benefits to remaining in compliance with the JCPOA. Moreover, this strategy allows the Iranians to maintain the moral high ground with the United States while also denying them a pretext for war by highlighting that it was the Trump administration and not Tehran that first violated the agreement. It also has no ostensibly offensive component beyond the implied threat of future development of nuclear weapons, which remains a distant and, at least for now, unlikely possibility.
Even so, the nuclear program provides the Iranians with far more leverage than a few randomized tanker explosions ever could, so it’s difficult to understand what strategic value Iran would see in the latter. Realistically, the only thing the tanker attacks seem to be accomplishing is escalating the calls for military action against Iran. In that way, those who are making the case for war may already be winning it.