Why overlook the Saudis?

Reading about the solidarity between the USA and UK about pointing the finger at Iran for the oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman recently, and the haste with which Western media uncritically reported these pointed fingers, I couldn’t help letting my mind wander a little. Why were Western analysts so quick to endorse ‘official’ statements? What should they be doing instead?

‘Teleology!’, I thought. The analysis of phenomena not by looking for causes, but by examining who benefits.

So what is the fallout from the attacks?

It has been suggested that oil prices will rise on the back of fears about further attacks.  Saudi Arabia is pretty well placed.  With Red Sea access, and considerable military clout, Saudi Arabia seems to be largely immune for such attacks.  More interestingly, given the longstanding rivalry between the Saudis and Iranians for leadership of the Muslim world, a black mark against Iran’s name, a military intervention by the USA, or even a military adventure by an international gang, would delight the Saudis.  Who seem to be making the most noise about the necessity for such a move.


What has actually happened? On 12 May, four tankers were sabotaged with mines off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, in the Gulf of Oman. The UAE has refrained from pointing the finger at anyone specifically, with spokespeople acknowledging that too little evidence exists to apportion blame, but that a state actor is suspected. On 13 June, the Japanese-flagged Kokuka Courageous, and Norwegian-flagged Front Altair oil tankers were damaged, apparently also by mines, in Iranian Gulf of Oman waters. These attacks occurred during Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Iran to explore opportunities for mediating between Iran, the USA, and the West more generally.

Since that time, the USA has offered indistinct satellite footage of a vessel similar to those used by the Iranian navy as patrol boats, alleging that these images show Iranian special forces operators removing a mine from the hull of the Kokuka Courageous. Japanese officials have rejected such images as proof of who committed the attacks, countering American allegations by pointing out that the mere capability to execute such attacks would include the USA and Israel as likely suspects too.

If not the US-UK perspective—that Iran did it—what other options are there to explore in order to explain the attacks? Who would ultimately benefit, and from what fallout?

I don’t suppose many people remember the American Bush dynasty.  Attention spans are so short and selective these days.  Let’s just say they tested the theory that fighting a war, dressed up as democratic, patriotic duty, would boost flagging poll numbers for incumbent presidents seeking re-election.

Could someone in long robes have whispered in the ear of an intellectually challenged president of the USA that such a war could be arranged, for mutual benefit? Couched in language that stroked the dotard’s ego sufficiently to make such a deal irresistible?  If the simple-minded Kim Yong-un could fool the ‘dotard’, surely it wouldn’t be too hard for a skilled Saudi diplomat.

Of course there’s no evidence for such a hypothetical.  Except the teleological certainty that Iran has almost nothing to gain from attacking oil tankers, particularly not a Japanese one during a Japanese state visit to Iran. In fact, Iran has very much to lose if it committed these attacks.

And, of course, for those with memories slightly more advanced than those of guppies, there’s the matter of the earnest and oft-repeated assurances from the USA and the UK that Iraq had to be invaded ‘because WMDs’.  Never mind that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.  What was located definitively was the fact that the USA and UK don’t mind at all lying to the public to justify war.

It’ll all come out in the wash, right?  If we’re all still around after the spin cycle.

Update: 18 June 2019

On 18 June, Deutsche Welle, the German international news service, reports that Iran is challenging European signatories to the accord on Iranian nuclear enrichment to do more to lift crippling economic sanctions, particularly on its oil exports which have been targeted sharply by the USA.

At the same time, European foreign affairs spokespeople have called for caution about endorsing the American and British view that Iran is to blame for the oil tanker attacks. Germany, in particular, says time is needed to examine evidence from ‘other’ sources.

Update: 20 June 2019

Since writing the original comment above, a number of developments have complicated matters.

It transpires that German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is out of tune with her foreign minister when she says there is ‘strong’ evidence Iran carried out the attacks on the oil tankers.  Heiko Maas says Germany is still evaluating the available evidence.

Could Merkel’s comments relate to German approval of arms sales worth more than €1 billion (AUD $1.6 billion, USD $1.1 billion) this year to the Saudi-led alliance fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen’s brutal civil war?  Sales made despite a halt being called publicly to arms sales late last year in response to the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Even the USA has distanced itself from the Yemeni war because of a humanitarian crisis contributed to heavily by Saudi bombing with American ordnance.

Zooming out from any specific incident or conflict, this means Germany has a financial stake in the Iran-Saudi ‘cold war’, which is played out in many smaller proxy conflicts rather than by direct confrontation.

In this context, Merkel should be challenged to table the evidence she believes strongly implicates Iran in the oil tanker attacks.

Can any major Western power now be trusted to tell the truth about anything at all that transpires in the Middle East?  Hopefully the Australian government will resist its reflexively spineless urge to support any US-UK stance uncritically, and almost always to Australia’s national detriment; there seems to be no limit to military budget largesse in such circumstances, even while mean-spirited cuts are made to cultural, social, and economically sustainable development programmes.

If Iran really executed these attacks it would be an extremely dangerous game of brinkmanship for the isolated theocracy.  The stakes are very high, and the wrong move by anyone in the region could lead to disaster for millions of people.  The West ought to be very sure of its ground before committing to such ‘collateral damage’.  And Australia should stay well away from the intrigues that benight that region; we have no possible interest in adding to human misery in the Middle East or its wider conflicts.


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