Maritime security experts say there was likely less than four kilograms of explosives in the limpet mine that tore open a gash in the stern of Norwegian oil tanker “Andrea Victory” as she lay at anchor off the United Arab Emirates on May 12. As with additional attacks against three other vessels and two major oil pipeline facilities in nearby Saudi Arabia, there was little chance of the attacks causing catastrophic damage or disrupting the world’s supply of oil.
That, however, was never the purpose of the attacks – blamed by the United States and others on Iran and its allies. Instead, the attacks appeared to be a warning, a demonstration of just how much chaos Tehran and its proxies could unleash if rising tensions with Washington and its regional foes turned to outright war.
It’s a face-off that says much about the increasingly blurred rules of international confrontation, with a growing number of nations now willing to use deniable action and emerging technology to attack and influence their foes. It’s an approach that President Donald Trump’s administration – like that of Barack Obama before it – is still looking for strategies to counter.
As with North Korea in 2017, the US president and some of those around him – particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton – are keen to use the threat of overwhelming US military force to bring adversaries to heel. That approach, however, is complicated by a host of strategic and geopolitical realities – not least widespread international scepticism that the US might genuinely be willing to risk triggering potentially devastating regional wars, coupled with messy local geopolitics that significantly constrain and complicate Washington’s real-world options.
When it came to tackling Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, both Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un found themselves losing the diplomatic initiative to South Korea, which was desperate to avoid war and bounced both sides into talks. Trump clearly still hopes for further diplomatic breakthroughs, despite much wider scepticism. But as his visit to Tokyo this week demonstrated, he now finds himself trapped between regional heavyweights China and Japan.
As North Korea’s only real ally and supporter, pressure from Beijing was key to bringing Kim to the negotiating table. As Washington’s “trade war” has escalated, however, China appears to have been exerting much less pressure, potentially a major factor in the North’s decision to resume missile tests. These have dramatically alarmed the United States’ principal regional ally Japan, providing the most visible point of contention with Trump during last week’s visit.
While North Korea’s small arsenal of working nuclear warheads injects a particular frisson of danger, in other respects it may be Washington’s confrontation with Tehran that is more dangerous. While in Asia, America’s allies and enemies alike share a broad determination to avoid war, in the Middle East that is much less clear. Indeed, when it comes to dealing with Tehran, key US allies the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia clearly already consider themselves in conflict. It’s a context within which respect for any form of international rule book is swiftly diminishing. The conflict in Yemen, labelled the world’s worst international humanitarian crisis by the United Nations, indicates just how far all sides are willing to go.
This isn’t new, but it is worsening on a scale not seen in several years. Under Obama, the US government spent a considerable amount of time and energy worrying that Iran’s nuclear programme would provoke an Israeli strike and wider regional meltdown. That era saw its own “shadow war” with a host of suspected Israeli assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists provoking suspected but deniable Iranian attacks on Israeli embassies and diplomats in Thailand and India. For a while, that too looked like running out of control. But ultimately, all sides calmed down and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was seen as offering Tehran a way to build rapprochement with the international community.
That deal, of course, has now been largely torn up by Trump, partly in response to Iran’s undoubted meddling across much of the rest of the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen. European countries clearly wish to keep it open, but with most potential buyers of Iranian oil reluctant to be barred from the United States, it’s really Washington’s decision that counts. And with the Trump administration floating the prospect that it might look to suspend all remaining waivers on Tehran’s oil exports – effectively barring it from global markets – Iran may increasingly feel it has little else to lose.
That’s particularly true for its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, listed as a terrorist group by Washington last month and which has long been Iran’s vanguard when it comes to risky and deniable foreign actions.
It all produces a potent, dangerous mix. Trump was right to say in Japan this weekend that no one in the region or outside really wants “terrible” things to happen. And the fact Japan will meet with Iran over the summer in a move apparently endorsed by Washington does suggest an ongoing demand for diplomacy.
But the risks are very real. All sides are clearly keen to signal just how ready they are for conflict if necessary, and such moves can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.