Tehran Toughs it Out
Trump loses another opening round in his war on Iran
The release of the Iranian tanker Grace Ithat was detained last month by the Gibraltar authorities is a victory for Iran, and a vindication of the tough, resolute and shrewd way it has managed the crisis since it began. By the same token, it is a defeat for the US, which tried to prevent the move and get the vessel impounded but ended up being snubbed and ignored by its closest ally.
When US National Security Advisor John Bolton was in London this week, he met with the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, and pressed hard for the tanker’s release to be blocked to avoid embarrassing President Donald Trump and his administration. But he failed in his endeavours. The British government wanted to dissociate itself, at least in part, from the US’ mindlessly confrontational approach to Iran, and to put its own interests first and facilitate the release of the British-flagged tanker detained in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. That was the wise and rational thing to do.
The British government committed a major blunder when it yielded to US pressure to seize the tanker in the first place, a major provocation based on dubious legal grounds. It badly misjudged the likely Iranian reaction, apparently expecting Tehran to meekly submit and come begging for forgiveness and absolution.
But it was obvious from the outset that this move would provoke proportionate – or even larger-scale – Iranian retaliation. Iranian leaders issued clear public warnings to that effect. They waited two weeks for a response and then ordered in the Revolutionary Guards to lead the British tanker away like a lamb, amid a posse of hapless American warships. And they had the episode videoed for all the world to see.
The UK authorities made two mistakes in succession: first, submitting to the US demand to seize the tanker; and then failing to correct that error or take the Iranian threat of retaliation seriously. They have now, apparently, realised this and sought to make amends, by not heeding Bolton’s demand for the tanker to be impounded. That was a remarkable show of independence from an inept and erratic US administration that, where the Middle East is concerned, has become a mere puppet of the Israel Lobby.
When Trump trashed the nuclear deal and began his campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran, he probably imagined it would react the way his Persian Gulf allies do when he puts pressure on them: conceding to all his demands, obeying all his orders, and opening up their coffers with no questions asked. How utterly wrong he was.
Following this incident, Iranian tankers will be able to sail freely through all international waterways, including the Strait of Gibraltar. Nobody will impede them, not even the US, because it knows what kind of a reaction that would provoke, as the UK and Brazil have learned. The latter tried to impede Iranian ships by complying with US requests to refuse to refuel them after unloading their cargoes. Iran swiftly ordered a ban on the import of Brazilian meat and produce, and the problem was resolved.
In its escalating war-by-every-means on Iran, the Trump administration has already lost all the opening rounds, both militarily and morally. It proved incapable of responding credibly when the Iranians shot down one of its spy drones. It claimed to have destroyed an Iranian drone in retaliation, but the promised video evidence was never forthcoming.
The policy of an eye for an eye – or a tanker for a tanker – seems to be the only language the Trump administration and its allies understand. The Iranians will not sit back while their economy is strangled and they are starved into submission, nor will they surrender their legitimate right to defend themselves, and develop the means to do so, against blatant and high-handed American aggression.
Britain backed down after realising the Iranians and their threats were serious. One can say with some confidence that at the end of the day, the Trump administration will eventually do the same: reinstate the nuclear agreement and lift the cruel and unjustifiable embargo, because to do otherwise would be devastating for its allies and its bases in the region.