The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf

The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf
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The first act has ended, and the second act is about to begin. But a lot is going on backstage during the intermission in the legal drama between the United States and Iran involving an Iranian oil tanker, now renamed the Adrian Darya 1.

The tanker was held in the British territory of Gibraltar from July 4 until last week because its oil was destined for an embargoed Syria. Now it is moving towards Greece, and Washington has warned Athens against assisting the tanker in any way.

Will Greece allow the oil to be transferred to other tankers? Take your seats and make yourself comfortable for the next, possibly final, act. There appear to be two likely outcomes: Either Iran’s economic and political isolation is increased, or Washington’s sanctions policy suffers an embarrassing setback. Greek authorities have said that any decision will be in line with European Union rules on Iran, whatever that means. After all, Gibraltar seized the tanker because of those rules — and then reinterpreted them, in order to release the ship.

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The obvious action may be taking place in the Mediterranean but the drama is rooted more than a thousand miles further east, in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian tanker was originally seized by British marines; then, on July 20, Iranian commandos fast-roped onto the deck of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero as it entered the Gulf, and forced it to go to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The supposed reason for that Iranian action was a minor collision with a fishing boat which needed to be investigated, but that incident probably never happened. The seizure was simple Iranian piracy, a tit-for-tat gesture of insolence for Gibraltar’s action.

The evidence for this is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had made an earlier attempt to seize a UK tanker, the British Heritage, on July 11 until an escorting British frigate, HMS Montrose, successfully intervened. Audio of an Iranian officer ordering the Stena to turn due north, toward Iran, is matched by the dulcet tones of a British naval officer declaring the right of transit passage.

The deciding factor in that confrontation was, almost certainly, that British marine sniper teams on the deck of the Montrose used their scopes to paint laser beams on the chests of the commanders of the three harassing Iranian fast boats. When push comes to shove, there are limits to the desire of even Iranian Revolutionary Guards for martyrdom.

Whatever happens in the Mediterranean, future events in the Gulf are far more crucial, because of the Gulf’s preeminence in world oil supply. On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said during a meeting with the country's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that if “Iran’s oil exports are brought down to zero, international waterways can’t have the same security as before.”

Iran has been pushing the limits since at least May. First, there were the attacks on four tankers anchored off the United Arab Emirates (UAE) port in Fujairah, apparently the work of Iranian frogmen. Then, two tankers — one Saudi, the other Emirati — were attacked as they were underway. Additionally, there were drone attacks on two pumping stations of the Saudi pipeline which connects the Gulf with the Red Sea.

Those drone attacks may have originated to the north in Iraq or in the south, in Houthi rebel-controlled areas of Yemen. The Iranian-supported Houthis also claimed responsibility for the drone attack this past weekend on the Saudi oilfield of Shayba, on the border with the UAE. The field, apparently only mildly damaged, produces one million barrels of oil a day — a huge amount.

The increase in tension in recent months has been paralleled by a decline in confidence in American leadership, epitomized by the moment when, on June 20, Iran shot down an American reconnaissance drone and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE then backed away from retaliatory action a few minutes before the first strikes would have happened. Meanwhile, traditional Gulf allies of Washington have become, in the circumstances, cautious, asking for more proof that Iran was responsible for the tanker attacks or sending diplomats to Tehran for bilateral talks. 

The American tactic for the moment appears to be that old Washington favorite, a legal challenge — hence, Gibraltar and whatever else happens this week. Efforts to form a military coalition are moving painfully slowly. So far only the UK, Australia and Bahrain have signed up.

In the Gulf, legal threats mean little. With substantial U.S. naval forces inside the Strait of Hormuz and at least one carrier strike group outside, the U.S. military has considerable assets at the ready. Indeed, many more than the British Royal Navy. Yet, so far, the deciding factor in the latest confrontations with Iran has been the steady hands holding sniper scopes on Iranian adversaries rather than those controlling an F-18.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.