OpEd By Harold Finch

Tensions in the Gulf Rise as Collision Course Seems Inevitable

7/22/2019

Events within the Persian Gulf continue to develop at a rapid pace that challenges the speed of the daily news cycle. Shortly before the release of my last article, Iran downed a US Navy unarmed, unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, and continued to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf.[1] [2] This action has been ongoing in the Gulf,  and recently, the IRGC acted to seize UK-flagged tankers. This timing of this was noteworthy; it was immediately after action by the Gibraltar Police and UK Royal Marines from 42 Commando, a unit similar to the US Navy SEALs. [3] That unit seized an Iranian-owned and flagged oil tanker named Grace 1, which was destined for Syria, an act that violates sanctions put in place over the Iranian nuclear program. At current market value, the 2 million barrels of oil in her hold would be the equivalent of $110 million USD. This hold has monumental value to the Iranians- representing hard currency the Iranians are desperate for as sanctions continue to cripple the regime.

Currently, paychecks for Iranian military personnel are several weeks to several months in arrears. The sanctions are having a dramatic effect, and the Regime is getting desperate. As of yesterday, a young Iranian Air Force 2LT took his own life in protest, because he was unable to provide for his family. [4]

In response to the UK led action, the Iranian IRGC retaliated, seizing three UK tankers as retribution against the UK; an effort to ramp up pressure on the country, and cause them to cease abiding by US sanctions on the Iranian Regime. Further evidence of the US sanctions effectiveness is becoming apparent as well; Russia recently declined sale of advanced Sukhoi SU-35 fighter-bombers to the regime citing the Regime’s inability to pay for them. [14] The US has also begun to sanction the People’s Republic of China for its violations of US Sanctions on the import of Iranian oil, which the PRC continues to violate.[15] [16]

Currently, one of the seized tankers, the Stena Impero, is lying moored off the IRGC naval port of Bandar Abbas. [5] At nearly the same time this was unfolding, an IRGC drone was downed less than 1000 yards from the US Navy amphibious warship USS Boxer and her embarked US Marine Corps MEU; also shadowed by an Iranian Navy surface warship. The US Navy has described the drone incursion as threatening. [6]

With these events unfolding, it seems clear Iran has decided it will not come to the negotiating table. In my last article, I laid Iran’s strategy. They seek to spike the price of oil on the world market to force the EU allies to abandon the US sanctions,  thus, preventing the collapse of the regime and buying precious time to build their first nuclear warhead. The US has dismissed the Iranian offer to negotiate if the Iranians put forth sanction relief as a serious offer.

Now, more than ever, it seems clear Iran believes it can successfully split the coalition and break the sanctions. The seizure of British tankers in response to the action against Grace 1 demonstrates that the Iranians do not fear retaliation and believe they can operate in the gulf undeterred. At the time of this writing, the UK Government in the last days with Theresa May as Prime Minister, and has only signaled an increase in forces headed to the gulf but signaled no other actions. [7] The UK has publicly announced that it will send an Astute-class Nuclear Powered attack submarine to the gulf, as well as a company from Royal Marine 42 Commando. [8] [9]

Tensions in the Gulf continue to escalate, with the Iranian regime continuing its series of hostile acts, primarily targeting the UK, though the risk to all maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf remains high.  The Iranian units operating in the Gulf are using advanced tactics commonly used by Special Operations units like Royal Marines, US Navy SEALs and other maritime special forces units; in their illegal seizure of the Steno Impero, IRGC units used a combinations of armed fast-attack boats, as well as Special Operations units that fast-roped from helicopters to perform the visit, board, search and seizure operation (VBSS). [10]

With the deployment of the 42 Royal Marine Commandos, it would appear that the UK is set to maintain its own rescue force, or its own VBSS capability in the Persian Gulf in response to future attacks like the one carried out against the Stena Impero and her crew, who remain hostages at the time of this writing. [11] [12]

With Iranian forces continuing to escalate, and with the deployment of additional UK and Iranian Navy units to the gulf, it appears a collision course similar to the 1980’s tanker wars is brewing.[13] What is most interesting is that the Iranians have chosen so far not to attack US Navy or US-flagged ships; this is further evidence of the Iranian calculated strategy to split the UK from the US.

Look for increased attacks on EU nations, including their shipping avenues. Iran wishes to set the stage for EU nations, particularly the UK, to retaliate. This comes at a sensitive time for the UK with the upcoming departure of UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and Boris Johnson now set to replace her. [22] This clearly factors into the Iranian calculus of applying pressure to the UK. Will other nations in the EU face similar attacks? Will the Iranian regime begin attacking US shipping in the gulf as the regime grows more desperate to relieve the pressure of US sanctions? Time will tell. The collision course remains dead ahead, with Iran unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons program, and the US and its allies unable to accept a nuclear armed Iran. Stay tuned as we continue to report on this developing story.

 

Citations:

[1] Everything we know about Iran’s claim that it shot down a US RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone (updated) – The War Drive, Tyler Rogeway

 

https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/28613/everything-we-know-about-irans-claim-that-it-shot-down-a-u-s-rq-4-global-hawk-drone

 

[2] Iranian Forces seized 2 Brittish Tankers on Friday in an Escalation against the US and UK. Business Insider – Ellen Loanes

 

https://www.businessinsider.com/british-flagged-vessel-headed-for-iran-stena-impero-2019-7

 

[3] Iran Fury as Royal Marines Seize Tanker Suspected of Carrying Oil to Syria – The Guardian – Dan Sabbagh, Patrick Wintour

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/04/royal-marines-gibraltar-tanker-oil-syria-eu-sanctions

 

[4] 2LT Sajjaf Seif passed away due to his injuries. BBC Persian, Babak Taghvaee,

 

https://mobile.twitter.com/BabakTaghvaee/status/1151153440543903744

 

[5] Footage Shows Seized Brittish Steno Impero off Bandar Abbas – Reuters

 

https://www.reuters.com/video/2019/07/20/footage-shows-seized-british-stena-imper?videoId=576938956

 

[6] Marine Anti-Drone Buggies on board USS Boxer knocked down ‘Threatening’ Iranian Drone (updated) The War Drive, Joseph Trevithick.

 

https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/29063/marine-anti-drone-buggies-on-uss-boxer-knocked-down-threatening-iranian-drone

 

[7] Iran Tanker Seizure: May Chairs Cobra Meeting On Crisis – BBC

 

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49067166

 

[8] UK To Send Nuclear Sub, Commandos to the Gulf After Tanker Siezure by Iran – Sputnik

https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201907221076320423-uk-nuclear-sub-commandos-gulf-tensions-soar-reports/

 

[9] Arm Our Ships: Nuclear sub could be sent to boost Navy Defense in the Gulf after tanker seizure – The Sun – Michael Hamilton, Ryan Sabey, David Willetts

 

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/9548887/nuclear-submarine-iran-defence-the-gulf/

 

[10] Footage of Stena Impero seizure by IRGC – UK Telegraph

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJszRfb7EfQ

 

[11] Iran knows taking hostages pays off – Mike Doran, Senior Fellow with The Hudson Institute

 

https://mobile.twitter.com/Doranimated/status/1153259883510345728

 

[12] Stena Impero: Crew Seen in first pictures from inside UK-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran- Sky news

 

https://news.sky.com/story/stena-impero-crew-seen-in-first-picture-from-inside-uk-flagged-oil-tanker-seized-by-iran-11768184

 

[13] Pompeo Says ‘No Indication’ Iran is changing its Malign Behavior – Fox News – Adam Shaw

 

https://www.foxnews.com/politics/pompeo-says-no-indications-that-iran-is-changing-direction-on-malign-behavior

 

[14] Russia refuses selling SU-35s to Iran – BBC Persian – Babak Taghvaee

 

https://mobile.twitter.com/BabakTaghvaee/status/893157215372292096

 

[15] US Slaps Sanctions on Chinese Firm for Importing Iranian Oil – Al Araby

 

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2019/7/22/us-sanctions-chinese-firm-for-importing-iranian-oil

 

[16] US Sanctions Chinese Oil Trader for Violating Iran Restrictions: Pompeo – Pakistan Today

https://profit.pakistantoday.com.pk/2019/07/22/us-sanctions-chinese-oil-trader-for-violating-iran-restrictions-pompeo/

 

[17] Royal Marine 42 Commando – UK Ministry of Defense.

 

https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/the-fighting-arms/royal-marines/commando-brigade/42-commando

 

[18] Astute Class Nuclear Submarine – Naval Technoloy – Naval-techology.com

 

https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/astute/

 

[19] Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, 11th MEU Leave on Scheduled Pacific, Middle East Deployment – US Naval Institute – Gidget Fuentes

 

https://news.usni.org/2019/05/01/boxer-amphibious-ready-group-11th-meu-leave-on-scheduled-pacific-middle-east-deployment

 

[20] Marine Expeditionary Unit – GlobalSecurity.org

 

https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/usmc/meu.htm

 

[21] Sukhoi  SU-35s: Capabilities out of this world. www.defense-aerospace.com

http://www.defense-aerospace.com/articles-view/release/3/158684/russia-touts-su_35s-before-zhuhai-presentation.html

 

[22] Recap: Theresa May sets departure from No 10 – BBC – Kate Whannel, Paul Seddon, Francesca Gillett, Hamish Mackay, Alex Therrien and Matt Cannon

https://www.bbc.com/news/live/uk-politics-48394091

 

[23] US Rejects Iranian FM Proposal on Lifting Sanctions Permanently – Al Aswat – Heba Al-Qodsi, Elie Youssef

 

https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1821356/us-rejects-iranian-fm-proposal-lifting-sanctions-permanently

Photo: Stena Impero, Reuters