As Arab leaders met with President Obama yesterday, Iran appeared to be turning up the heat in the Persian Gulf once again, reportedly opening fire on a Singapore-flagged vessel in international waters. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Three IRGC naval patrol boats ordered the tanker to shift course and head into Iranian waters, U.S. officials said. When the commercial ship’s crew refused, the Iranian boats fired warning shots to try to force the Alpine Eternity to follow their orders, according to the U.S. military and officials with the ship’s Norwegian operator.
When that didn’t work, the Iranian boats tried to “disable” the Alpine Eternity, apparently by opening fire with machine guns directly at the ship, said one U.S. official.
The Iranian boats then pursued the commercial vessel for close to an hour as it headed for port in the United Arab Emirates, American officials said. The Iranians broke off pursuit only when the U.A.E. Coast Guard ships came to the aid of the Alpine Eternity.Kai Bjorkelund, director of Transpetrol TM AS, the Norwegian operator of the Alpine Eternity, said the crew was safe and the Iranian boats caused no damage to the tanker.
When the Maersk Tigris was released, we noted that the vital consideration was whether Tehran viewed the incident as having come too close to the brink, or a sign it could rattle the U.S. chain with impunity. With that in mind, this is not a good sign. Relatedly, Iran announced earlier this week that it was sending a supply ship to Yemen, escorted by its own navy. The ship could easily come into direct confrontation with Saudi and allied vessels enforcing a naval blockade of the country.
Negotiating with paper on the one hand and warships on the other is nothing new. Traditionally, gunboat diplomacy involved imperial powers sending a comparatively small but overwhelmingly well-armed boat to enforce its will by intimidation on the lesser nations of the earth. Iran, though, has seemingly inverted the proposition: while the U.S. in theory is almost infinitely stronger at sea, it is being shown up by a small flotilla of patrol boats in the hands of a lesser power willing to use them.
The White House appears to be so unwilling to jeopardize its nuke deal with Iran that it is apparently tolerating Iran’s harassment of international shipping based on the pretense of commercial disputes. U.S. officials told the AFP that the attack was made “in order to settle a legal dispute stemming from an incident on March 22, 2015, when the Alpine Eternity reportedly hit an Iranian-owned oil platform.” “Iran claims that the vessel is liable for damages to the oil platform,” the official went on, without mentioning that commercial disputes are generally not resolved by quasi-piratical attempted boardings in international waters. Thus Iran, despite its relative weakness, is demonstrating its ability to interfere with the freedom of the seas and free trade—which are both vital, mutually-reinforcing pillars of the U.S. global order.
Fortunately this time there is no “captive ship” to prolong the crisis. But if Iran seems to think it has a free hand in the Persian Gulf, that’s incredibly dangerous. There are few easier ways to slip into a war than to assume firing on ships won’t start one.