Two Theories About the Gulf of Oman Tanker Attacks

Two tanks ships have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran was behind it. Saudi Arabia eagerly agrees.

While it cannot be ruled out that they are right, there are several reasons to be suspicious of their claims.

  1. The US has now repeatedly been spoiling for war in Iran over a longer period of time. This is not the first accusation they have leveled against Iran. They have claimed Iran broke the nuclear deal which has been disputed by the intelligence of all US allies. They have claims a military buildup in Iran readying for a conflict. This was also disputed by allied intelligence. In 1987 Iraq attacked and sank USS Stark. However Iran got the blame for this attack. It was used as a pretext for the US to make further attacks and embargo against Iran.
  2. The US has a long history of starting wars over false claims. The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was used as a pretext to attack Iraqi. That Iraqi had WMDs was disputed in most of the rest of the world, including by inspectors like Hans Blix. The Vietnam war was started over the Gulf of Tonkin incident, where the US falsely accused North Vietnam of starting an unprovoked attack on the US. Then we have the intervention into Libya to supposedly save civilians. This also turned out to be a pack of lies. Interestingly this also involved deceiving allies. From Norwegian press there are numerous articles about how Norwegian military commands thought they were assisting in a limited scope mission to save civilians. Yet they noticed a hard American pressure to expand the scope to regime change. Clearly not only the rest of the world but also military alliance of the US was deceived.
  3. All point thus far has pointed to general untrustworthiness of the US in these situations. However this happened under American administrations with far more credibility than the current Trump Administration. Trump and his cronies lies repeatedly and distorts truth on such a regular basis that it is hard to take anything they say serious. Trump made it clear he wanted to go hard against Iran way before he was even president. He clearly has a motive for what is going on now.

A Crime Needs a Motive

A key effort in any crime investigation is to determine motive. Watch any Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and much of the story revolves around determining the motive.

Yet here we have a crime without any clear motive by the supposed perpetrator. What does Iran gain from this? Reduced traffic in the gulf is bad for their oil export.

They know the US is spoiling for war. Doing such an attack would thus be suicidal. Iran may poster in public about their ability to fend off the US, but it is unlikely that they internally don’t realize a military conflict with the US would be disastrous to them.

Iran has already restrained themselves to keep their deal with the EU countries. It makes no sense for them to suddenly jeopardize this.

There are four possible candidates with a motive to carry out these attacks. Let us review each of them and consider probabilities.

  1. The US has motive, however an explicit attack like this is unusual for the US. The usual approach is to provoke an attack from an adversary through recklessness behavior, and thus being able to pin the blame on them. An explicit attack by the US, carries far too much risk of being exposed. A large portion of the US military would disagree with such actions. Hence I consider plausibility of a US attack close to zero.
  2. Israel also has a strong motive. But again this does not fit their previous habit. It is too risky for them, if they get caught red handed doing this. So while more likely than the US, I think it is also highly unlikely Israel has done this.
  3. Unsanctioned play by Iranian hardliners. Groups within the Iranian power structure, could have carried this out without the blessing out the hire ups. What would the motive be? It could be to undermine the more liberal leadership in power. A conflict with the US would radicalize Iranians and make them unite behind the conservative hardliners benefiting them. While more plausible than an Israeli attack I still consider it unlikely. This would still be unusually reckless for the hardliners. They know they would risk their whole Islamic republic doing this.
  4. A Saudi power play not sanction by the US. The Saudi do this thinking they are “helping” the US. The US may or may not be aware that Saudi Arabia has done it. In the next section I will elaborate why I think Saudi Arabia is behind this.

Why Saudi Arabia is the Most Likely Perpetrator of the Oil Tanker Attacks

Everything aligns exceptionally well with Saudi Arabia. They have a clear motive. There is a powerful struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. They are fighting a proxy war in Yemen, and other places. They have hated each other for a long time.

Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman has a history of spectacularly reckless and rash decisions. For instance he kidnapped Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. From New York Times:

This, it seemed, was the real reason he had been beckoned to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, a day earlier: to resign under pressure and publicly blame Iran, as if he were an employee and not a sovereign leader. Before going on TV, he was not even allowed to go to the house he owns there; he had to ask guards to bring him a suit.

Then there is the case of all the Saudi Princes and business men MBS imprisoned in a luxury hotel and tortured to give him their wealth. Add to this, Saudi princes kidnapped abroad. To top it all off we have US resident Khashoggi, which was kidnapped in Turkey and killed and mutilated in grotesque ways by Saudi butchers under MBS orders.

Saudi Arabia basically got off scot free for this grotesque human rights abuse. Not to mention their daily human rights abuses in Yemen. They know Donald Trump has their back.

Most likely the attack on the oil tankers is MBS doing yet another reckless action. He thinks he is going to get away with it just like Khashoggi. He knows Trump and Kushner has his back. My guess is that at some point, if they have not already, the US intelligence service will learn that Saudi Arabia is actually behind this. The Trump administration will tell the intelligence community to keep that a secret, so they can keep ramping up the pressure on Iran.

However ultimately I think the truth will leak out somehow. However by that time it may be too late. The US may already be involved in Iran.

How will it all play out in the end?

This is hard to predict. No western leader really likes Donald Trump. They are not going to join a war against Iran. On the other hand few western leaders want to be seen as publicly defying the US.

They will not punish the US for attacking Iran, nor will they support it. Russia will most likely vote against action against Iran. However I would not rule out the Trump administration dumping the Ukraine in favor of Russian support for an Iranian invasion.

It is hard to see how this will play out. We can see that Russia historically seems to place a great value on being a reliable ally to their partners. They went to great lengths supporting Assad. That paid off handsomely for them in terms of goodwill among client states. They know dumping Iran will not look good. So all Trump will likely get out of Russia is perhaps an okay for a limited engagement and that Russia will not send troops. Iran will still most likely receive weapons from Russia.

Eventually I think it will come down to face saving gestures for Trump. He cannot have ramped up this whole thing without giving the impression of having actually done something. We have seen this in North Korea. Nothing was achieved except stuff that looked good on camera. Same goes for Mexico lately.

This either means Trump get Iran to publicly state something pointless, that looks like Trump had some sort of win, or it means a limited military engagement. E.g. the US may symbolically bomb some Iranian facilities related to their nuclear program.

I say symbolically, because it likely will not have much effect, but that does not matter. What matters is that Trump can pass himself off as a man of action.



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Erik Engheim

Erik Engheim


Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.