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Opinion A high-stakes game of chicken is playing out in the Gulf of Oman

Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia until he was expelled in August, 2018. He was also head of mission in Iran from 2009-12

Thursday’s attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman was a dangerous escalation in the game of high-stakes chicken that has been playing out in that volatile region.

U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has pointed the finger squarely at Iran, citing intelligence, the weapons used and Iran’s known capabilities. The U.S. has also taken the unusual step of releasing a video of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessel alongside one of the ships, apparently removing an unexploded limpet mine, to back up its allegations.

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The U.S. position in directing blame to Iran is compelling. Iran has the motivation, the capability and the form. Tehran is feeling the heat of the U.S. policy of maximum pressure and they are clearly growing ever more anxious for relief by whichever means they can get it.

Military action in the Gulf may, on its face, seem to be a dangerously provocative action for Iran to take at this juncture and with this U.S. President. But there is a method to their madness. This kind of limited attack on oil shipments passing through the Gulf likely aims to serve as a reminder to the U.S. and others of what Iran is capable of doing and the risks they can pose to the global economy. The 5 per cent spike in oil prices after the attack reinforced that message.

The attacks also put a darker spin on comments made by Iran’s leadership earlier this spring. Tehran’s warning that they “will not allow any country to replace Iran’s oil in the market” and that the U.S. and others would be “responsible for the consequences” can now, perhaps, be more clearly read as: “If we can’t get our oil to market because of sanctions, neither will you”.

It is an approach which is fully consistent with previous threats by the Islamic Republic to shut the strategic Straits of Hormuz if pushed and it evokes the memories of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when Iran attacked commercial oil shipments to squeeze Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries that supported it.

Iran’s denial of any responsibility for the attacks is entirely predictable and should be taken with a grain of salt. The actions were intended as “shots across the bow” not a declaration of war. They are desperate, not stupid and they remember how the tanker wars in the 1980s prompted swift U.S. intervention in the region.

But efforts by Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif to implicitly deflect blame onto the U.S. (or the Saudis) by characterizing the attacks during the visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “suspicious” or part of “Plan B” by U.S. hawks was typically clumsy. The allegation rests on the idea that the attacks were aimed at undercutting Iran’s outreach to potential friends and customers by manufacturing a scenario that would underscore Iran’s aggressive nature and unwillingness to play by the rules.

The charge of U.S. duplicity will doubtless resonate in some quarters and it will fuel the regional and international rumour mill. There is no shortage of people out there willing to believe the worst about the current leaders of both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But if Mr. Abe was going to be deterred from undertaking his diplomatic initiative with Iran by a provocative Iranian military action, there were already plenty of examples for the Japanese Prime Minster to consider before these attacks.

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The main problem with the Iranian narrative, however, is that the timing of the attacks during the visit, particularly the targeting of a Japanese ship while Mr. Abe was in Tehran, serves Iranian interests more than the presumed U.S. or Saudi objectives Mr. Zarif seems to be selling.

Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, is a major consumer of Gulf-sourced oil. Escalating tensions in the Gulf and a major disruption in oil shipments to Asia would have devastating consequences for Japan. What better way to ensure that this warning of the risks of continued U.S. pressure is received (and passed along) than to have one of Mr. Trump’s few reported international friends, Mr. Abe, whose country would be among the hardest hit, sitting in Tehran when it was delivered.

These latest attacks are worrying. The recklessness of Iran in taking this step speaks to a desperation or, more concerning, an arrogance that poses grave risks going forward. No one wants war; not the Iranians and not the U.S. or Saudis. Blowing up ships in the Gulf, however, is one of the best ways to stumble into one.

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