Iran Pulse No. 95


No. 95                                   June 16, 2019  


Measure for Measure: The IRGC's Calibrated Calculus in the Gulf Tanker Attacks

Micha'el Tanchum*


On June 13, 2019, two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman close to the Iranian coast. The Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous were en route to Asia when they were attacked approximately 25 miles (40 km) and 28 miles (45km) respectively from Iran's Jask port. Noting that one of the tankers, the Kokuka Courageous, is owned by the Japanese firm Kokuka Sangyo, observers of the current escalation between the U.S. and Iran speculated that the attacks were intended to undermine Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's mediations efforts that were being conducted concurrently in Tehran.  However, the attacks indicated that Abe's mediation efforts were a non-starter. The June attacks, like the tanker and pipeline attacks a month earlier, were a carefully calibrated message framed within the interests and naval doctrine of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Any effective international response, whether diplomatic or military, needs to address the strategic calculus contained in the terms of the Guard Corps' message.


IRGC Navy Doctrine Frames the Message

On April 21, 2019, shortly before to the end of the first six-month period of U.S. sanctions, Iran's Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed the anti-American firebrand Major-General Hossein Salami as the new commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran's parallel military whose power in Iran is second only to the supreme leader himself.  An even more significant appointment occurred just after the U.S. implemented its "Maximum Pressure" with its complete ban on Iranian oil purchases.  Two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump's May 2, 2019 termination waivers previously granted eight nations to purchase Iranian oil, Iran's supreme leader appointed Admiral Ali Fadavi to replace Salami as IRGC deputy commander.  No stranger to confronting the U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Fadavi was decorated with Iran's Fath (Victory) medal after capturing U.S. Navy sailors whose boat inadvertently entered Iranian waters in January 2016. The elevation of Fadavi, who served as IRGC Navy Commander from 2010-2018, has placed the admiral at the center of IRGC operations in the current crisis and Iran's calibrated responses have been shaped within the framework of Fadavi's articulation of the IRGC's naval doctrine.

As IRGC Navy Commander, Fadavi explained the fundamental tenet of the IRGC's naval doctrine in a televised interview on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's Channel 1 on October 29, 2014. In the interview, Fadavi posits that Iran, and the IRGC Navy in particular, is the sole power that guarantees the maritime security in the Persian Gulf upon which the world economy depends.  Stating that "The world knows that the U.S. cannot establish security," Fadavi asserted, "Rather, it is Iran, it is the Islamic Revolution [read IRGC], that is resolute to provide security in the Persian Gulf – not only for its own sake, but for the sake of the world. The entire world will enjoy economic prosperity."  Referring to the "tanker war" at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War, Fadavi emphasized, "The important thing is that America knows full well that if it confronts us, and if even a single shot is fired in the Persian Gulf, the whole world will realize that America is not as strong as it was in 1988-1989."

The U.S. Navy's Operation Earnest Will, the largest convoy protection operation since World War II, the attack Operations Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis, and the USS Vicennes's downing of an Iran Air passenger plane mistaken for an Iranian F-14, convinced Iran then to climb down from hostilities in the Gulf.  Fadavi and the IRGC's fundamental message is that, unlike the late 1980s, Iran's deterrence capability in the Persian Gulf now is unassailable and U.S. Arab allies in the Gulf will not be able to continue petroleum related exports if Iran is likewise prevented by sanctions.

Iran's attacks in May and June have been carefully calibrated to communicate this message.


Measure for Measure: The Message in The Madness


On May 14, 2019 Iranian-supported Houthi forces in Yemen conducted a sophisticated drone attack on two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. The attack was part of a carefully calibrated response to the May 2, 2019 tightening of oil sanctions against Iran by the U.S. Trump administration under its new policy of ‘maximum pressure'. The attacks on the Saudi pumping stations were preceded three days earlier by acts of sabotage against ships in the United UAE's Fujairah oil port.  Taken together, these attacks against oil export infrastructure of the leading Gulf state members of the anti-Iran bloc were intended as a signal that the collective ability of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries to replace Iranian oil through bypassing the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint is not assured. 

The attack in Saudi Arabia caused minor damage to only one of the pumping stations, according to the Saudi Ministry of Energy. Unlike prior Houthi drone attacks on Saudi Arabia conducted close to the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border using shot-range Qasef-1 drones, the pumping stations that were attacked are located over 700 km from the border and were likely attacked by 1,400 km range UAV-X drones reported to be in the Houthis' possession.

In contrast to large oil storage tanks, the pumping stations that were attacked are relatively small targets. More difficult to hit, especially over such long distances, and not inflicting spectacular damage for the effort, the deliberate targeting of the pumping stations that supply the Saudi Petroline pipeline was specifically tailored to threaten the kingdom’s export outlets without providing a pretext for a major escalation.

Petroline, also known as the East-West pipeline, transports oil from Saudi Arabia's oil- producing Eastern province on the Persian Gulf westward a distance of 1,400 km to the oil refineries at Yanbu port on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast.  The maximum capacity of the pipeline is roughly 5 million barrels per day (bpd) and is being expanded to 6.5 million bpd.  With Saudi oil exports hovering just under 7 million bpd, and so the expanded Petroline pipeline and the Yanbu oil terminal could theoretically be used to continue Saudi Arabia's global exports in the event of a disruption in the Persian Gulf and the strategic passageway of the Strait of Hormuz.

The UAE's Fuajirah port performs a similar function in providing security of export supply routes in the event of conflict in the Persian Gulf.  It too was targeted through acts of sabotage on Saudi and Emirati vessels anchored off port.  Fujairah is the world's second largest bunkering (ship refueling) port and a major oil storage center, with the UAE seeking to more than double its already large storage capacity by 2022.

Strategically located on the UAE's eastern coast in the Gulf of Oman, outside the Persian Gulf and its Strait of Hormuz choke point, the Fujairah port provides another critical export outlet.  The Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline (ADCOP) runs from the UAE's Habshan oil field to Fujairah where it supplies the refinery as well as the export terminal.

The May attacks were a message for Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington as the US escalates its crippling economic pressure on Iran, particularly in the wake of the US ending sanctions waivers in early May 2019 for Iran's largest purchasers of oil. For its part, Tehran denied that it was involved in either set of attacks, maintaining plausible deniability.  While the circumstances surrounding the Fujairah attacks remain murky, Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen were clearly involved in the attack on Saudi Arabia's Petroline pipeline.  It is unlikely that Iranian-supplied Houthi forces would conduct such an attack without at least tacit permission from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds force.

Ninety per cent of Iran's oil is exported from its Kharg Island terminal located 25 km off the Iran's Persian Gulf coast and 483 km northwest of the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia and the UAE's dependency on the Persian Gulf for their own oil exports traditionally created a degree of mutual deterrence against any party disrupting the security of the shared maritime domain. The creation of Persian Gulf bypass routes by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, has removed that mutual deterrence and created a severely asymmetrical vulnerability for Iran's maritime oil exports.

By striking at oil export infrastructure that bypasses the Persian Gulf without inflicting serious damage, a carefully calibrated message was communicated that these bypass routes are in fact vulnerable to attack and therefore the strategic calculus in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi (as well as in Washington) should again return to the principles of mutual deterrence.

The warning was not heeded as Tehran intended.  For its part, Saudi Arabia has reason to believe its pipeline is sufficiently resilient, as Saudi Aramco is amply supplied with spare pipeline parts and maintains the backing of the US. Riyadh is more likely to focus on further augmenting its air defenses and Abu Dhabi would probably take a similar approach.

Thus, Iran struck again in the Gulf of Oman.  The timing and the specific targeting again also carried a calibrated message.  The two tankers that were hit were carrying petrochemicals products and inputs. The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was carrying 25,000 tonnes of methanol originated from Saudi Arabia's  petrochemical  manufacturer Sabic and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock produced by the UAE state-owned oil company ADNOC in Abu Dhabi. The attacks occurred six days after the U.S. government moved to tighten its restrictions on Iran's petrochemicals industry on June 7, 2019.

The original November 2018 re-imposition of sanctions on Iran's petroleum industry contained an ambiguity of language that allowed Iran to continue exporting several of its petrochemical products. Higher on the value-chain and less subject oil price shocks, lucrative revenues from petrochemicals industry were key to Iran's economic survival during the previous sanctions period. Iran's highest revenue earner after oil and natural gas, it was U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iranian petrochemicals that helped bring Tehran to the negotiating table in 2013 resulting in the 'Iran Deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action' from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. 

During the Iranian calendar year, March 2018 to March 2019, Iran's petrochemical exports brought the country an estimated $11 billion in revenues, according to the Iranian Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Products Exporters’ Union. Iran's largest petrochemicals firm Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company is alleged to have closed ties to the IRGC.  The U.S. June 7 ban on Iranian petrochemicals targeted the IRGC associated petrochemicals company as well as 39 subsidiary companies and foreign-based sales agents.

Thus, the Iranian attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman carrying petrochemical materials originating from Saudi Arabia and the UAE again indicate a calibrated messaging that meets U.S. actions measure for measure within the IRGC's overall naval doctrine.


Setting the negotiating table for the IRGC


The recent attacks represent a deliberate and carefully calibrated message from Tehran to its regional antagonists and their foreign backers. Although the messages contain an implicit warning as to IRGC capabilities, they may also indicate a willingness in Tehran to consider dialogue and the establishment of strategic redlines related to regional security, including Iran’s military activities in the region and the economic and energy interests of all states in the Persian Gulf.

The torpedoing of Shinzo Abe's mediation efforts reflected the fact that the negotiations did not provide a sufficient bargaining position for Tehran within the IRGC's framework and interests.  To bring Tehran to the table, the U.S. will either have to bargain under the premise that the IRGC maintains a deterrent capability that will prevent Arab Gulf petroleum exports or will have to convincingly demonstrate that this deterrent capability does not exist by dismantling a significant portion of the IRGC's anti-access, area denial capabilities, such as the cruise missile batteries that line Iran's Persian Gulf coast, through the use of military force. Either way, future U.S. and international action needs to take into account the strategic calculus contained in the terms of the IRGC's message.



*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).


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       Iran Pulse No. 95 ●  June 16, 2019

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