Iran’s Oil Tanker Gambit Has Nowhere to Go

Bobby Ghosh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To judge by the propaganda of the Iranian regime, the brave warriors of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had captured a Royal Navy guided-missile destroyer. Video footage shows the IRGC men rappelling down to a ship while other fearless comrades, looking on from speedboats racing alongside the vessel, cheer them on with shouts of “Allah Akbar!” Still images show the men advancing cautiously down the deck, automatic weapons pointed forward in preparation of a fierce gun battle.

Stirring stuff for an Iranian audience raised on stories of Albion’s many historical perfidies against their nation! Except the captured ship was not the mighty HMS Duncan, bristling with missiles and men-at-arms, but the Stena Impero, a small oil tanker with a motley complement of 23 civilians—and not a single man jack among them holding a British passport.

Since the crew was from India, Russia, the Philippines and Latvia, the IRGC was deprived of the ultimate photo-op: Royal Navy sailors on their knees, hands behind their heads in submission. So, there could be no reprise of the 2016 images of American sailors in that position, which the Iranians jubilantly recreated for their Revolution Day parade that year.

No matter. The IRGC will undoubtedly find an ingenious way to celebrate its latest accomplishment. In the meantime, the generals can crow about “Iran’s defensive and offensive power” and warn of their “surprising and unpredictable aspects.” 

But the capture of the Stena Impero is no more surprising and unpredictable than it is awesome. (Somali pirates, armed with dhows and small arms, have taken vessels many times larger.) If anything, the Iranians are about to find out that their maritime adventurism has mostly irritated the world instead of intimidating it.

Coming after the flurry of attacks on oil tankers in and around the Gulf of Oman, the taking of the Stena Impero represents the highest hand the Islamic Republic can play against Western powers, short of a direct confrontation with a naval vessel. Having played it, the IRGC has nowhere else to go.

Taking another civilian craft would have diminishing propaganda returns. Attacking the HMS Duncan, or a U.S. Navy vessel, would invite kinetic retaliation, something the Iranians have carefully avoided.

Nor, presumably, would they want the world to test their claim that they can shut off the Strait of Hormuz—when they make this threat, they are quick to add that they “don’t want to.” Closing the waterway through which a quarter of the world’s oil trade flows would not only harm the global economy and stick it to regional adversaries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it would also deeply inconvenience Iran’s few friends and sympathizers.

China and India would not be pleased to have their energy needs choked off. Iraq and Qatar would see their exports plummet. And, in the ultimate demonstration of nose-cutting and face-spiting, blocking the strait would advance the Trump administration’s aim of reducing Iran’s oil exports to zero.

So what now for the heroic captors of the Stena Impero, and their brilliant generals? They face the prospect of more Western naval vessels plying the Gulf, the better to protect civilian shipping. Britain is calling for a European alliance to guard tankers against Iranian aggression. This is meant to be separate from an American alliance, but to the Iranians that is a distinction without a difference—and another attack on a tanker would remove even that fig leaf.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of the Iranian tanker seized by British authorities last week while trying to transport oil to a Syria under sanction. The legal wrangle over the Grace 1 will be long and arduous. If the Iranian regime is lucky, perhaps the ship might be released in time for next year’s Revolution Day parade, allowing for another display of empty triumphalism.

To contact the author of this story: Bobby Ghosh at aghosh73@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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