Like everyone else who can say “Gulf of Tonkin,” “Remember the Maine,” and “Iraqi WMDs,” my instinctive reaction to the attacks on two tankers, a month after explosions hit four oil tankers in the UAE port of Fujairah, was: “Oh, come on now!”
By Jim Kavanagh
Published on Counterpunch, June 24, 2019
It was a helluva week on the Iran front. It started with attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13th and ended with Donald Trump ordering, and then calling off, a military attack on Iran on June 20-21. How we got from beginning to end of that chapter in ongoing US-Iran saga is worth close consideration.
Like everyone else who can say “Gulf of Tonkin,” “Remember the Maine,” and “Iraqi WMDs,” my instinctive reaction to the attacks on two tankers, a month after explosions hit four oil tankers in the UAE port of Fujairah, was: “Oh, come on now!” We know the United States, egged on by Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been itching to launch some kind of military attack on Iran, and we are positively jaded by the formula that’s always used to produce a justification for such aggression.
It seemed beyond credibility that Iran would attack a Japanese tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, at the moment the Prime Minister of Japan was sitting down with Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran. After all, Iran is eager to keep its oil exports flowing, so it would hardly want to so flagrantly insult one of its top oil customers.
Nor did it seem to make sense that Iran would target a Norwegian vessel, Front Altair. That tanker is owned the shipping company, Frontline, which belongs to Norway’s richest man (before he moved to Cyprus), John Fredriksen. Fredriksen made his fortune moving Iranian oil during the Iran-Iraq war, where his tankers came under constant fire from Iraq, and were hit by missiles three times. He became known as “the Ayatollah’s lifeline.” Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Fredriksen’s Frontline company has continued to help Iran move its oil in a way that evades sanctions. A friendlier resource Iran has not. This is the guy Iran chose to target, in another gratuitous insult?
Then there’s the smoky-gun “evidence”: a grainy video of somebody doing something on the side of some ship, which looks like it came out of an episode of Ghost Hunters. I encourage everyone to read this Twitter thread, which includes the observations:
I count 10 people on board this vessel. That also could very well be a magnetic mooring line they are removing, because we have such trash resolution on the video.
Lastly, these sailors clearly are working out of the mine clearance handbook:
“when clearing mines ensure that you have your 10 best friends standing behind you. That way if it blows they can catch you and you won’t fall down.”
Because they probably weren’t clearing mines.
All of this—the history of US false-flags and war-justifying lies, the specifics of the targets hit, and the risibility of the evidence presented—made it very difficult for the Trump Administration to assemble a critical mass of domestic or international consent for a military attack on Iran.
Too many people share former British Ambassador Craig Murray’s reaction: “I really cannot begin to fathom how stupid you would have to be to believe” that Iran attacked those tankers. After all, Cui bono? Aren’t there a slew of other actors—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or the US itself (Can you say John Bolton?)—who have more of an interest right now in dramatic explosions that practically invite a US military response?
That was certainly my reaction.
Let’s pause for a second to emphasize the wonderfulness of the Trump-effect at work here. As numerous media pundits are complaining, Trump himself lacks credibility and elicits skepticism, even from “our Western allies.” The Washington Post (WaPo) headlined it: “Standoff with Iran exposes Trump’s credibility issue as some allies seek more proof of tanker attack.” I discussed this in a previous essay, quoting the New York Times on the attitudes of more than a dozen diplomats and international politicians: With Trump as president, the US is losing the “moral authority [that] has imbued America with a special kind of clout in the world” and even “its ability to make needed alliances.”
Ain’t that grand?
Barack or Hillary wouldn’t have that problem. Their attack on Iran would have been chock full of moral authority, grainy video and all.
Then Iran shot down an RQ-4A Global Hawk drone on June 20th. That’s a very valuable US military asset, one of the Navy’s four RQ-4A “massive surveillance” drones that cost $110-220 million apiece—more than an F-35, the country’s most advanced fighter jet.
That drone probably did violate Iranian airspace, as Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and MoA show (also here). In that narrow part of the Strait of Hormuz, it was virtually impossible not to. But the argument over that is clouded by how the drone’s 60,000-ft cruising altitude affected its angle from the Iranian shore.
By any measurement, that Hawk was not an innocent bystander. It was undoubtedly spying on its prey, Iran, from as close as the US thought it could get away with, gathering intelligence and scouting targets to facilitate the deadly military attack the US is always planning. And the Iranian military did not hesitate to strike that very valuable US military asset—directly, overtly, and without apology.
Though I still hold to the false flag explanation of the tanker incidents, Iran’s action in taking down the drone confirms the crucially important point made by the well-informed anti-imperialist commentators who suggested that Iran did commit at least one of the tanker attacks. Particularly cogent is the analysis, Elijah J. Magnier, a reporter with many reliable sources in the region, as elaborated by the always-sharp blogger, Moon of Alabama (MoA).
Their fundamental point is that Iran is not going to passively abide the siege-warfare economic sanctions that the US has now ratcheted up to “maximum pressure.” The last straw is the US’s denial of waivers allowing China, Japan, India, and South Korea to import Iranian oil. With those sanctions in full force, the US is effectively imposing a blockade of Iran, which is an act of war.
In the face of this, Iran will not content itself with listening to heartfelt entreaties from European and Asian countries that it take responsibility for not “raising tensions” by accepting its besieged position as a new starting point for ”dialogue” with its attacker.
Indeed, the Abe-Khamenei encounter ended up precisely in a rejection of any such scenario. Contrary to Craig Murray’s assumption that the Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was in Tehran for “US-disapproved talks,” he was there carrying a message from Trump, who was offering to “to suspend all sanctions only during the negotiations.” Khamenei summarily refused, telling Abe that Trump was “not worthy” to “exchange a message with,” and dismissing Abe as the errand boy he was. That does put another light on the attack on a Japanese tanker.
As Magnier emphasizes, Iran has made its position clear: “[I]f Iran can’t export oil through the Persian Gulf, no-one in the Middle East will be able do this…oil will stop being delivered to the world if Iran can’t export its two million barrels per day.”
Even if its ostensible European and Asian friends capitulate to them—as they are doing, despite their professions of solidarity—Iran is not going to discuss or negotiate or live under crippling sanctions imposed by the US. It is going to act against them. It’s done seeking relief from its completely untrustworthy besieger through infinitely regressive talks. It’s determined not to talk about the siege, but to break it.
MoA sums it up, the present situation is confusing and dangerous because “Iran and some of its enemies now have the very same tactical interests. Both sides now want to increase the heat in the region.”
Iran is now going to act in ways that require Europe and Japan either to put up right quick about their promises to defy US sanctions and abide by their commitments in the JCPOA, or to shut up, watch Iran fight back, and pay the consequences. It is telling the US and the Trump administration that it better back off on the sanctions, or face Iran’s version of “maximum pressure.”
The ambiguity about whether or not Iran was responsible for either of the tanker attacks demonstrates that Iran is in a position where it could stage a series of plausibly deniable incidents, taking advantage of the justifiable suspicions about US patterns of behavior to turn the US’s own historical actions and present Boltonesque war-whoops against themselves to create what are essentially false false flags.
It won’t take too many such incidents that are hard to pin definitively on anyone, until it doesn’t matter who did it, and, as one of Magnier’s sources put it: “no insurance company will agree to cover any oil tanker navigating in Gulf waters, putting Iran and other oil-exporters at the same level.” Per his source: “more objectives may be targeted and the level of tension will gradually increase. …If Iran is in pain, the rest of the world will suffer equally.”
The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces assures us that: “If the Islamic Republic of Iran were determined to prevent export of oil from the Persian Gulf, that determination would be realized in full and announced in public, in view of the power of the country and its Armed Forces.”
Maybe so, but, as Pepe Escobar points out:
The key point is it doesn’t matter how the Strait of Hormuz is blocked.
It could be a false flag. Or it could be because the Iranian government feels it’s going to be attacked and then sinks a cargo ship or two. What matters is the final result; any blocking of the energy flow will lead the price of oil to reach $200 a barrel, $500 or even, according to some Goldman Sachs projections, $1,000.
…This figure, times 100 million barrels of oil produced per day, leads us to 45% of the $80 trillion global GDP. It’s self-evident the world economy would collapse based on just that alone.
The certainty—indeed, the proud acknowledgement—that Iran did shoot down one of the US’s best military assets that strayed in, or too close to, its airspace demonstrates that Iran is also going to respond militarily and unequivocally to any hostile military activity directed against it, including any violation of its air, sea, and land borders.
Of course, one hopes Iran will be cautious with any such decision, as the head of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division claims it has been here: “With the U.S. drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board. This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not.”
Though it’s news from Mars for most Americans, and I have not heard a single word about it in days of US media coverage about the innocent stricken drone, Iran does not forget that the US Navy once shot down an Iran Air civilian airliner in Iranian airspace, killing 290 people, including 66 children. This prompted the President of the United States at the time—the “thoughtful, restrained” George H. W. Bush, icon of “bipartisan respect and comity,” who “always found a way to set the bar higher”—to declare: “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”
Iran will shoot down any threatening aircraft—and certainly any damn drone—it wants. Without apology.
Thus, Iran considers that it is already at war, and has struck back. And it will do so again—with whatever instruments of force it can muster, in a manner of itschoosing, at whatever deadly level of escalation the US uses to try to force Iran to accept its own strangulation.
Fortunately, all the incidents so far have been without loss of life or immense damage, but any US attack on Iran—whether it’s the “tactical assault,” “limited to a specific target” that the Jerusalem Post described as imminent, or whether it’s the widespread strategic assault aimed at destroying large parts of Iran’s infrastructure, “sinking its navy,” and bringing about “the official end of Iran” that’s been threatened by various US politicians—will result in calamitous death and destruction, and Iran will respond in kind.
That response will take the form of direct counterattacks from the Iranian military on US and attacking forces where possible, and/or asymmetric counterattacks by Iranian-allied forces on US and allied bases, installations, and forces throughout the region.
General Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, wants the shooting down of the US drone to be a “clear message” that Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war.”
To be clear: In my opinion, this is a non-passive, assertive posture that all anti-imperialists should support. The United States has no right to forcibly determine what Iran’s government is, what weapons it can have, who its allies are, or with whom it can trade. Iran has every right to fight back against any such aggression, and every anti-imperialist leftist should advocate its victory in any such fight.
Whatever happens to Iran, can the Gulf countries, Israel, Western Europe, Japan, the entire US presence in the Middle East, the world economy, or, most trivially for everyone but him, the Trump presidency, survive that without catastrophic damage? That’s the question Iran is now forcing all those actors to answer.
Unfortunately, among the rulers and decision-makers (in whose hands Donald Trump is putty) and, more fatally, among the populace, there is a strongly embedded assumption of inevitable, relatively-costless victory and an infinite ability to control outcomes. They think the US will be able to do to Iran what it has done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria: impose catastrophic destruction at will, without suffering serious and deadly consequence in return.
It doesn’t seem to register on them that the US has achieved nothing its own citizens can embrace as “victory” in any of these deadly interventions. In Afghanistan, the US is hoping it can strike a deal with the Taliban it came to defeat sixteen years ago. It can throw missiles at Syria at will, but has not been able to overthrow the Syrian government it proclaimed “had to go” 7 years ago.
Indeed, neither elites nor populace seem able to recognize that Iran is not Syria. As Iranian analyst Trita Parsi says, they’ve bamboozled themselves into thinking that “Iran is no different from Syria. You can strike yet they won’t have the guts to respond.” But those who think the US can get away with a limited “tactical” assault on Iran are deluding themselves.
Iran does not have the weaknesses Syria has faced for the last decade, and it is precisely determined not to allow them to develop. Iran will not allow itself to be struck at will by the US or its ward state, Israel, without punching back. It the US delivers a “bloody nose” attack to Iran, Americans better be ready for a punch in the face.
Iran is calling the US bluff on escalation dominance. It knows it can be hurt, but not defeated. It is a country of 83 million people, with 617,000 square miles of formidable, semi-mountainous territory—almost three times more populous and four times larger than Iraq. It’s a country that fought and won one of the deadliest wars in history, against an Iraqi invasion backed by the US and all its regional and international client states. It will not hesitate to defend itself furiously against anyAmerican attack.
The Saker gives a reasonable evaluation of Iran’s military strengths and vulnerabilities here. But Even a warmongering neocon like Max Boot recognizesthat it would take “more than 1.6 million troops” to invade Iran, and that
Even…stick[ing] simply to airstrikes…would not be an antiseptic, push-button exercise … Iran could employ a combination of antiship cruise missiles, drones, submarines, small boats and mines to “swarm” U.S. naval ships in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf. It could target U.S. bases in the region with its arsenal of some 2,000 missiles. It could cripple U.S. computer networks with cyberattacks. It could employ Hezbollah and other groups to stage terrorist attacks abroad. It could send local militias armed with missiles and car bombs to attack the 19,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It could tell the Houthis in Yemen to unleash a missile barrage against Saudi Arabia and it could order Hezbollah to fire 150,000 rockets and missiles at Israel.
In response, the United States would do . . . what?
All the US can do is blow a lot of stuff up. But two can play at that game, and Iran isn’t afraid of it. Notably, neocon Boot echoes Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah, who says that the “entire region will burn if the US goes to war against Iran,” and anti-imperialist Magnier, who warns that “Iran is ready to burn the Middle East if it is prevented from exporting its oil.”
Targets of opportunity
As Iran understands, they are already at war. Trump started the fire when he pulled out of the JCPOA and imposed a “maximum pressure” economic siege on Iran. That fire can easily become a conflagration—and Iran understands every jump of the flame.
To be specific about one danger of escalation for the US, which Iran knows and the Pentagon knows, and Iran knows that the Pentagon knows, I remember one counterintuitive observation from, I think, military analyst The Saker, to the effect that we’ll know when the US is about to attack Iran not when it sends its aircraft carriers to, but when it withdraws them from, the Gulf. Aircraft carriers are very effective platforms for force projection against countries that don’t have advanced anti-ship defense capabilities (Libya, Syria). But it’s an open secret that advanced anti-ship missiles (ASMs) of the type made by Russia and China—including ballistic, anti-radiation, submarine-launched, and super- or hypersonic—can quickly turn the aircraft carrier into a very big floating coffin. Unlike Libya or Syria, Iran has obtained or locally produced versions of all but fully hypersonic ASMs, and can launch them from the air, from mobile carriers, from submarines, and from a ring of concealed and hardened sites around the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz—confined sea quarters where a Nimitz-class carrier is, indeed, a verybig and close target.
It might be worth noting that: “Part of the selling point is Global Hawks fly so high and normally they should be secure from being shot down.”
That’s why we should not cavalierly dismiss the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s air force, when he says: “An aircraft carrier… was a serious threat for us in the past. But now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities.”
Maybe he’s bluffing. There’s no question that the US holds a powerful military hand, and maybe it is absolutely, positively sure it knows where all the missiles are and can defend against them. (That’s’ what those high-flying Hawks are for!) But there’s a hell of a pot on the table for raising on a maybe. It’s the good hands that lose the most.
Iran is not hiding its tells. There is no “maybe” about the fact that, if there’s a carrier sitting in the Persian Gulf launching planes to attack the country, Iran will try to sink it. How many ASM aces did you see Iran get from Russia or China?
For someone, there’s a bad beat coming.
As military analyst Andrei Martyanov says, even in the ‘70s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was worried about “the strategic and psychological effects of the loss of even a single nuclear aircraft-carrier would have on the U.S. Navy.” And the whole exceptional, invincible country. If Iran sinks, or even hits and seriously damages a US carrier, there will be enormous pressure on Trump to absolutely devastate Iran. Iran knows that, and is ready to respond to it with as much devastating force as it can muster, hitting any target it can.
And we haven’t even mentioned what happens if Iran or, as Boot evokes, its Hezbollah ally, rains missiles on Tel Aviv, causing serious damage and casualties. My bet on that hand is that Israel takes the opportunity it’s been looking for to nuke Tehran or Qom, establishing its ruthless and irreversible hyper-dominance of the region for once and for all. (It will think.) It’s Israel. Who within the United States, during that war on Iran, will protest?
Because Israel, like Iran, and unlike the US public, from whom this knowledge is assiduously hidden in the weeds of deliberately dishonest blather, knows what this conflict is about. And it’s not about preventing Iran from getting any mythical nuclear weapons. Again, even Boot knows “the nuclear deal did [that] far better”—and the US throwing away that deal proves it is not interested in Iranian nuclear weapons at all.
As Bolton and Pompeo keep saying, the goalposts have been changed entirely. (Or should we say, finally revealed?) It’s all about Iran’s “bad behavior” in the region, its threat to US “allies and interests.” This is the Trump administration reprising Hillary Clinton’s definition of Iran as an “existential threat to Israel”—which means, precisely, that its very existence as the main power that can materially and militarily resist Israel’s hyper-dominance of the region is unacceptable.
That’s why Trump also executed Hillary’s call for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be designated a terrorist organization. Iran must cease its support of Hezbollah, the most effective frontline fighting force, which prevented the Israeli seizure of South Lebanon. It must abandon the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Lebanese, and neuter itself militarily, giving up any strategic weapons. Iran must agree to become a country that can be bombed at will by Israel and the US, as Syria is (for the moment).
Above all is Hillary’s admonition (which Trump has again been happy to take up) that “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m president, we will attack Iran…totally obliterate them,” should Iran attack Israel. Speaking for the whole of the bipartisan US political elite she meant “for any reason,” including self-defense.
That’s what this is about, as Iran knows well. The rest, including Iranian nuclear weapons, is diversionary bullshit.
Yes, the US also wants to prevent Iran from having any power to resist Saudi Arabia’s dominance as the oil power and as the guarantor of reactionary Sunni rule against secular nationalism and socialism throughout the Muslim world. But the US’s full embrace of Saudi Arabia depends on the latter’s alliance with Israel. The US political and media establishment would turn on a dime against Saudi Arabia if Israel deemed that to be in its essential national interest. There is no possibility that that establishment would turn against Israel because Saudi Arabia wanted it. The US political and media establishment is thoroughly committed to Zionism; they will never be committed to Wahhabism. The interest and demands of Israel and Zionism are determinative of US policy in a way that Saudi interests and demands will never be.
So, ultimately, as Ray McGovern says: “The ‘WHY,’ quite simply, is Israel. It is impossible to understand U.S. Middle East policy without realizing the overwhelming influence of Israel on it and on opinion makers.” That influence is the primary factor driving the enormous destruction that has already been wrought on the region by the US in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and will be wrought from a war on Iran. Though there are always other considerations, we would not have undertaken any of those wars but for the US commitment to Israel and Zionism. And it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
And Israel, and those in the US establishment for whom Israel’s interests are central, do not care if an aircraft carrier is sunk, or if the region burns. (Why the carriers may not leave the danger zone.) That’s what they want! They are trying to provoke a war in which they—either the US on their behalf or Israel directly with its nukes—can “obliterate” Iran. They don’t care who else gets obliterated in the process, and they cannot imagine that could be them. Did I mention—Does anybody ever?—Israeli nukes? Ace in the hole, that they will play if necessary to steal the pot.
Dead Man’s Hand
Trump’s rescission of his attack order, as well as Iran’s refrain from shooting down a manned US aircraft, is nice and all, but this game ain’t over as long as the economic siege of Iran continues. And given the actually-existing US polity, I think an enormously destructive conflict with Iran is virtually inevitable.
What might stop the insanity is if key “allies” have the backbone to tell the US president that (as Putin did) that any war with Iran will be a “catastrophe” for everyone, and that they will not only not go along with it, but explicitly denounce it.
What would help the most to deter the calamity is if more Americans understand, along with Iran (and Israel) what the object of the game really is, and make clear they don’t want to play it. That requires that enough Americans, among the populace and the decision makers—especially the military decision makers—drop the ideology of invincibility and exceptionalism, see and warn of the real dangers, and just say “No!”
That may be happening. This unprecedented episode where the President orders a military attack and then very publicly calls it off at the last minute may indicate that there’s some serious re-thinking going on. WaPo tells us that “The decision has divided his top advisers, with senior Pentagon officials opposing the decision to strike and national security adviser John Bolton strongly supporting it.”
Which is more plausible: That Trump was absolutely certain the U-S-of-A could “obliterate” Iran, and only called off the strike because he was repelled by the idea of killing 150 people? Or that someone among those foreign or domestic influencers who had actual, dispassionate knowledge of the forces arrayed, and who did care about watery graves and burning cities and oil fields, had the courage to say: “Do this, and we are fucked.”?
Either Trump is an extraordinarily reasonable and compassionate commander-in-chief, or he blinked.
I’m good with either. (And I just gotta say: We’re talking can’t-think-of-another level extraordinary. Definitely not Barack or Hillary!)
But what does Iran think? Or the US Deep State, with all its thoroughgoing commitments?
This time, someone—either a wise counsellor or his inner grasshopper—told Trump not to raise. But the real smart move is to call off the game, and that’s not going to happen.
Let’s see the next card.