The Irish Times view on tensions in the Persian Gulf: the risk of miscalculation
The confrontation over oil tankers is, in truth, a sideshow in the wider conflict between Tehran and Washington
A SH-60 Sea Hawk flies over the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer during a vertical replenishment-at-sea, Arabian Sea off Oman, last week. Photograph: Keypher Strombeck/US Navy/Handout via Reuters
Iran and the west are sliding towards a full-scale military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, one captured oil tanker at a time. That would be a calamity for Iran, which is being suffocated by US-imposed economic sanctions. It would also be a disaster for the European Union’s attempt to keep alive the Iranian nuclear accord which the US repudiated in May last year.
The epicentre of the most recent provocations is the Strait of Hormuz, the narrowest point of the Gulf, through which a third of the world’s oil supplies are shipped. Late last week the Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized a British-flagged tanker navigating the Strait, in retaliation for the British seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar earlier this month. London claimed that vessel was bound for Syria, in violation of western sanctions.
These incidents coincide with an escalation in the stand-off between Iran and the US, with each side claiming to have shot down a hostile drone flying over the Gulf in recent days. That tit-for-tat exchange of fire followed the decision of President Donald Trump last month to cancel military strikes against Iran just 10 minutes before they were due to be launched.
The confrontation over oil tankers is, in truth, a sideshow in the wider conflict between Tehran and Washington. This conflict has raged for 40 years, since the Islamic revolution, the overthrow of the Shah, and the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. The nuclear accord agreed during the Obama administration suggested a new beginning for Iran’s relations with the west.
Trump’s unilateral repudiation of that agreement was an act of diplomatic vandalism and a strategic miscalculation. It brought an end to Iran’s rapprochement with the west, such as it was, and stoked Iranian suspicions about America’s intentions, in alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia, towards the Islamic Republic. Now it may have ushered in the opening salvos in a fresh confrontation that, if it is not checked, could ignite a full-scale military conflict. Both sides must pull back before one of them makes another catastrophic miscalculation.