On 13 June, two tankers sailing through the Gulf of Oman came under attack, similar to a previous attack on four tankers in the same area a couple of weeks ago. The first attack was ascribed by senior US officials to Iran without conclusive evidence to this effect save that the attack must have been carried out by “a state actor”.
As far as the two attacks of last Thursday are concerned, US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left no doubt that Iran was the state actor responsible for carrying out the two.
US Central Command released a video showing men on an unmarked boat pulling a mine from one of the two tankers that had come under attack, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair.
According to official American sources, the boat in question belonged to Iran. What was more alarming was the statement attributed to a senior US official saying that the Iranians had fired a surface-to-air missile, 13 June, at an American drone flying over the Gulf of Oman.
Pompeo declared in a press briefing last Thursday that, “It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today [13 June].” He added that this assessment has been based on, “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication”.
The US secretary of state made clear that his government views these attacks as a “clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran”.
Whoever is behind the six attacks on shipping lanes in the Gulf area wants to send a message the gist of which is that it has the political will and the naval assets to close the Strait of Hormuz at any time of its choosing. In other words, this entity, and let us define it as a “state actor”, has the upper hand in the unfolding international crisis in waiting.
Some Gulf watchers went as far as describing the present state of affairs in the Gulf region in light of these attacks as a “hybrid war” waged by Iran against the United States with the near certainty on the part of the Iranians that the US would be quite reluctant to repeat an Iraqi-like military adventure in the Gulf, and this regardless of the Abraham Lincoln Strike Force and further military reinforcements deployed.
Closing international waterways has been a casus belli for centuries and it was the direct cause for the Israeli aggression against Egypt in June 1967, or at least that what the Americans and the Israelis said at the time, despite the fact that Israel had been planning another Sinai campaign (the first had occurred in October 1956) for years before the outbreak of hostilities on 5 June 1967.
In 1967, the United States gave the green light to Israel to attack Egypt on the assumption that defeating Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt would both serve the national interests of the United States and Israel and would deal a major blow to the image and role of the former Soviet Union within Egypt and in the larger Middle East.
Today, the geopolitical situation has been completely transformed in the Middle East, an element of which is not only the rise of Iran as a power intent on changing the status quo to its advantage but also because it has grasped the lessons of June 1967.
Don’t close the Strait of Hormuz but threaten by minor attacks here and there in the area to do just that if need be. In 1967, Egypt painted itself in very critical corner, that of an “aggressor” — which was not the case, needless to say — but Iran in 2019 is avoiding direct moves that lead to the actual closure of Hormuz, so that it won’t be similarly labelled.
My guess is that Iran will not hesitate to do more in case it comes under direct military attack and if the present American strategy of economic and financial strangulation of Iran persists without any perspective of a diplomatic opening in the short and medium term.
One of the striking similarities between June 1967 and June 2019 is that Israel is a common factor in both situations. In 1967, Egypt was seen by the Israelis as a bulwark against Israel’s expansionism with a joint border with the Hebrew state.
From an Israeli point of view, Nasser’s Egypt should be dealt with by force. When the occasion presented itself, the Israelis and the Americans had not hesitated to strike hard. Israel sees Iran under the Ayatollahs as a threat, and an existential one.
However, neither the Americans nor the Israelis have shown a willingness to go to war with Iran within its own borders. Of course, the Israelis have kept the spectre of Iran as an “existential threat” alive for the last three decades without firing a single bullet against an Iranian soldier inside Iran.
The same goes true for the United States, despite the threats of the Trump administration — particularly after it had withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran on 8 May 2018 — of going to war with Iran if it attacks American assets and interests in the Middle East, either directly or through Iranian proxies.
So far, American reactions to the attacks against international shipping lanes in the Gulf region have been restrained. It is true that US Central Command has recently requested the deployment of another 20,000 soldiers over and above the additional 1,500 troops that are already deployed in the region to deter Iran according to American justifications.
The true lesson of the Israeli aggression against Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967 is that the key to regional peace and security in the Middle East is to maintain a credible balance of power in the area without excluding Israel from this strategic equation. That holds true in 2019.
Regional peace and security in the Middle East for years to come should be based on a balance of power that serves the security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations.
To deal with the crisis in the Gulf otherwise would not help in restoring security and stability. The same goes for the present American strategy against Iran, a strategy that could only lead to war by miscalculation by either the Americans or the Iranians. In such a war, no one would come out victorious.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: From 1967 to 2019