Iranian attacks on tankers off the coast of the UAE clearly violated the warning given very clearly by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently. He said: “The regime in Tehran should understand that any attacks by them or their proxies of any identity against US interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive US response,”
The US has a longstanding interest in free and safe passage from the Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz. Although the attacks on four tankers did not include any US-flagged vessels, they certainly threatened the safety of all vessels in the region. If Iran is calculating that this does not constitute a crossing of a clear red line, they are mistaken.
The follow-on attacks by Houthi rebels against an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia are also attributable to Iran. There is no need for proof of an order from Tehran, the Houthi would not make such a provocative move without approval. And regardless the drones used were Iranian-built and delivered.
This is a dangerous escalation for Iran as it almost certainly will invite a US response. The IRGC operates many small boats and Navy assets specifically designed to threaten shipping throughout the region. It should surprise no one if a retaliatory strike against these and the bases they operate from happens shortly.
The US will want to establish Iranian responsibility, but there is no obligation for this to be iron-clad, courtroom-worthy evidence. There are a very limited number of entities either capable of or interested in conducting attacks like this and basically all of them are tied to Iran. We can’t rule out that it was IRGC forces themselves that conducted some or all of them. They were not pleased being designated as a terrorist organization although that was long overdue.
There is considerable concern that the ongoing activity is a prelude to war with Iran. While that cannot be ruled out, it is the goal of neither the US or the Iranians. We don’t want the entanglement or dangers of such a conflict and the Iranians are well aware they would pay a massive price in damage to their military and likely their nuclear facilities.
The danger is real, but a firm US response is more likely to show Iran they need to back off rather than embolden them.