Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal.
These allegations faced international pushback. Critics pointed out that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting authorities in Iran at this time as part of an effort to mediate the dispute between Iran and the United States regarding the nuclear deal. Both of these tankers were carrying cargo destined for Japan. These strikes would seem to violate both Iran’s national interests and the rules of hospitality during Prime Minister Abe’s visit. Iran denied that it was responsible for these explosions. The tension caused by this violence has not decreased, and Iran has not helped with its actions. Today Iran has announced that it will exceed the limits on uranium enrichment set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
As I write these words, there is no clarity on who was responsible for these attacks, although this event will likely be better understood as more intelligence agencies, news services and regional experts bring their resources to bear. But what particularly strikes me is how little credibility the United States appears to have on the international stage. Many observers are pointing to the long history of the U.S. seizing on pretexts for war that later proved to be false or doubtful. In particular, people have referenced the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana in February, 1898. Even though an expert, Navy Captain Philip R. Alger, gave his opinion that the explosion was caused by a fire in the coal stores, President Roosevelt insisted the explosion was caused by a mine and used this alleged attack to justify a war. Even today the true cause of the explosion is debated, but it is far from clear that there ever was a mine.
Still, most journalists and bloggers are not pointing to the U.S.S. Maine but rather the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which the United States used to justify the War in Vietnam. There is considerable evidence that this attack never happened (especially the second incident), and U.S. leaders knew -or should have known- this fact as they manipulated the U.S. to enter the war. More recently, there were the allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Critics points to Colin Powell’s speech on February 5, 2003 to the United Nations that used this allegation to justify the U.S. invasion. After the war the United States military searched desperately for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but none were ever found. It is fair to say that many people view the United States’ claims now through this historical lens. In my own classes, my students’ views of the United States role in the world were deeply shaped by the second Gulf War, in particular some of the veterans.
Whatever the truth will prove to be regarding the attacks in the Gulf of Oman,, there is wide sense of anxiety about not only a possible war, but also its potential impacts upon the global financial system. Any closure of the Strait of Hormuz might have widespread economic costs. For an example of this argument, I suggest reading Chris Martenson’s blog post “Waiting For The Black Swan.” Obviously, as this post is on a blog called “Peak Prosperity,” one would expect that it would take a negative view of the world’s economic situation. Still, Martenson’s discussion of how people seize upon simple events to explain complex causation is an interesting one. I think the sense that his piece conveys -that we may be on the edge of an unpredictable and dangerous change- captures wider anxieties around the possibility of war.
Sadly, these events are playing out in the context of a U.S. Department of State that has been hollowed out, as it has lost critical expertise in such difficult areas as North Korea. John Bolton, the National Security Adviser, has made frightening statements regarding Iran, which have caused widespread anxiety that there may now be either a misunderstanding, or that the U.S. government may take advantage of this opportunity. Let us hope that there are no miscalculations on any side, and that multiple nations are able to employ the tools of diplomacy and statecraft to avoid war.