— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 13, 2019
Read Ed’s post from this morning if you haven’t yet. The attack on the tankers is confounding considering that each had business with Japan and came at a moment when … Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for the first trip by a Japanese head of state in decades. The White House is trying to isolate Iran’s regime internationally, if only to pressure them into talks; Iran obviously wants to avoid isolation, which is why it took the meeting with Abe. Why would it risk blowing up its own international diplomacy with a new tanker provocation? Afterwards, Iran’s foreign minister described the attack on the tankers as beyond “suspicious,” a dark insinuation that either the U.S. or an ally — the Israelis? the Saudis? — was responsible.
But, as Ed asked, how easy would it be for a saboteur to hit a pair of tankers in the Gulf of Oman and then vanish without Iran detecting it?
CBS has a key detail from Pentagon sources:
A U.S. defense official told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin that the U.S. has video of a small boat coming alongside one of the tankers that was attacked and removing an unexploded “limpet” mine — a type of explosive that can be stuck manually to the side of a vessel. It is the same type of weapon U.S. officials say Iran used to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month.
A defense official also told WaPo that he suspected limpet bombs were used, and that the attack was perpetrated “by Iran or forces under its influence.”
Normally a country might follow a “closed fist” or “open hand” diplomatic approach, but maybe Iran’s trying some of both. The open hand was extended to Abe out of politeness, to hear his pitch about talks with the U.S. and to show European governments caught between Trump and Iran that Tehran wants good relations with the rest of the world. The closed fist was the attack on the tankers, done with enough plausible deniability that Iran could claim to Abe that it wasn’t responsible but with enough of a signature that the U.S. would get the underlying message — that Iran doesn’t want talks and will continue to punish the international oil industry if the U.S. doesn’t back off on sanctions. (“Analysts say that whoever was behind the recent attacks may be trying to make the point that there is no way around the gulf routes,” as the NYT notes.) Iran didn’t want to risk sending that “closed fist” message directly to the White House by attacking an American tanker and risking war, so it sent the message indirectly instead.
Sounds like the message was received too. We don’t really want talks, Trump tweeted afterward, not very convincingly:
While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2019
Here’s Khamenei rebuffing the idea of diplomacy with the U.S. during his meeting with Abe.