Iran’s well-orchestrated raid on a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf was mainly a flamboyant maneuver meant for television with the aim of demonstrating to the West that Tehran is determined to fight the economic sanctions biting into its economy, but without risking a military confrontation with the West.
The commander of the Iranian navy had no need for classified intelligence to know that hijacking an empty tanker in Oman’s territorial waters and forcing it to dock in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas would not earn a military response from the Royal Navy, despite the fact it was a blatantly hostile move.
The British, however, are currently preoccupied with electing a prime minister. They have also failed to properly protect their vessels in the Persian Gulf despite Iran’s threat to retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian tanker by Gibraltar authorities and British Royal Marines earlier this month.
The British tanker seized in Omani waters was the ward of a Royal Navy destroyer deployed in the area, but the latter was too far away to help it when the Iranian commandos came knocking.
But even had the destroyer been closer, it is highly unlikely London would have given the order to open fire, as both Britain and the United States are sparing no effort to state, day and night, that they have no interest in a military conflict with Iran.
However, Iran interprets the lack of military response by the West not as restraint but as weakness, which only serves as an incentive for it to continue with its provocative actions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took the time to “compliment” U.S. President Donald Trump for not responding to Iran’s downing of an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz in June.
“He understood that if he acts, so will we,” said Zarif.
The sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, and the additional sanctions Britain is now threatening to impose on the Islamic republic, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, but they are also what’s driving the Iranian provocations in the Gulf.
If anything, Iran’s reckless behavior proves that sanctions alone cannot work. Given the volatile climate in the Gulf, it is time for the West to come up with a coordinated military strategy backed by an international coalition that will make it clear to Iran that the only way to avoid a military confrontation is to resume negotiations on an improved nuclear agreement.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.