Tensions between the US and Iran have again flared up after two foreign oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route through which passes around 30% of the world’s sea-borne crude oil. The US has blamed Iran, releasing video footage that apparently shows an Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the vessel’s hulls. Predictably, Iranian leaders have denied responsibility for the attacks despite having previously threatened to sabotage Gulf shipping in response to sanctions.
Meanwhile, in May, four oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran, and most international governments agree Iran was almost certainly responsible.
Why would Iran target tankers? Iran has been hurting from the cripplingly effective US economic sanctions put in place after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – oil sales are at record lows, and the Iranian economy shrank 3.9% last year, and is expected to shrink another 6% this year according to the International Monetary Fund.
The US Administration argues, correctly, that the JCPOA was a profoundly flawed deal because the inspections regime was insufficiently watertight, it enabled Iran to continue to develop ballistic missiles, enrich uranium, and work on advanced centrifuges and it appears very likely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons once the ten-year sunset clauses in the deal expired. And as critics predicted, the massive funds liberated by the deal turbo-charged Iran’s aggressive activities regionally and beyond.
While the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China remain in the JCPOA, Iran has threatened that it would stop complying with key elements of the nuclear deal unless the remaining members help it blunt the impact of US sanctions. On June 17, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation declared that within 10 days Iran will have produced and kept more low-enriched uranium than the 300 kg permitted by the JCPOA, and also threatened to begin enriching uranium to higher levels of purity, closer to those required for a nuclear weapon. Teheran has given the international community until July 7 to meet its demands.
The attacks on the tankers were likely intended to send a message that Iran can choke the vital Strait of Hormuz if it desires to do so. In the lead up to the July 7 deadline, Iran likely calculated that this aggressive move could increase its leverage against the US, push the Europeans into finding a way around US sanctions, or both.
But Iran’s piracy and aggressive actions in the Persian Gulf should be a reminder that Iran is an inherently disruptive and dangerous rogue actor – whose violent behaviour must be rigorously and unwaveringly deterred and contained. Relying on the JCPOA to – hopefully – merely delay temporarily the Iranian nuclear bomb while allowing Iran to test missiles, run riot disruptively and aggressively on numerous other fronts across the region, and acting as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, should not be an option.
This conclusion should be underscored by the recent revelations in the US and UK about the global reach and malevolent intentions of Hezbollah, Iran’s most important international terrorist proxy.
On June 9, the UK Telegraph revealed that, in September 2015, raids on four properties in London uncovered three tonnes of ammonium nitrate explosive hidden in ice packs.
These raids were kept secret until revealed by the Telegraph, and the Hezbollah operatives assembling the explosives cache were not prosecuted. Some speculate this find was kept secret by the UK to avoid jeopardising the JCPOA, which had just been agreed on a few months earlier.
The London cache was not a one-off. Similar multi-tonne Hezbollah caches of explosives disguised as ice packs have been found in both Thailand and Cyprus in recent years, while Israeli intelligence claims they have thwarted attempts to build similar caches in New York and elsewhere in Europe. Reports of unsuccessful recent Hezbollah terror plots in Azerbaijan, Kenya, Nigeria, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, India, and Georgia suggest that further such caches may exist in Africa, South America, or other parts of Asia.
Meanwhile, the recent trial of Ali Kourani and Samer el-Debek, US residents arrested in 2017 and charged with surveying potential targets for Hezbollah, has shed further light on the extent of Hezbollah’s “sleeper cell” operations in the US and Canada.
Hezbollah appears to be putting in place the capacity to perpetrate mass terrorist havoc across the globe whenever the moment suits its Iranian masters. And Australia also reportedly hosts Hezbollah activity.
The UK banned Hezbollah in its entirety earlier this year, after previously banning only the group’s “military wing”.
In Australia, only Hezbollah’s “External Security Organisation” (ESO) is banned despite a parliamentary committee last year recommending that the Government widen the ban at least to the full “military wing”.
Last year, when Australia reviewed its policy on Iran and decided to continue its misguided support for the JCPOA despite the US withdrawal from it, Canberra committed to confront aggressive Iranian behaviour on other fronts.
Australia would be wise to urgently review its policy on Iran in light of Teheran’s intention to stop complying with the JCPOA, the repeated alleged attacks on foreign tankers and the demonstrated international terror threat from Hezbollah.
There must be strong and resolute international pressure on Iran to return to negotiations with the US, as President Trump has repeatedly urged, and end its aggressive provocations both in the Gulf and around the world.
In terms of its own profound national security interests and commitment to a stable rules-based international order, Australia should be doing whatever it can to contribute to the timely, calibrated and well justified US-led strategy of increasing the pressure on Iran. Banning all of Hezbollah would be one important measure that would send a message to Iran that its rogue behaviour and nuclear ambitions will not be tolerated, but this should be only one part of a larger program to maximise economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran as creatively and expansively as possible.