“Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.”
So wrote Agatha Christie, beloved author of the Hercule Poirot crime novels.
At the time of writing, there is a good deal in the foreground that remains unknown about yesterday’s attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The Japanese-owned and Norwegian-owned ships remain afloat just south of the Strait of Hormuz, with their 44 crewmen having been rescued by the Iranian navy, after both catching fire.
Precisely what munitions were used to knobble the tankers is unclear. Predictably, following the incident, the global price of oil spiked by fully four per cent.
While the foreground remains murky, the background is clearer. Despite their expected denials, there can be little doubt that Iran lies behind the attack, either directly or through the sponsorship of its Houthi rebel allies, fighting Saudi forces for control of Yemen.
No, Poirot does not have to stop growing vegetable marrows to help the international community solve this mystery. Simply put, Tehran had the motive, means, and opportunity to perpetrate the crime.
As always in political risk, the key question is: why? Or more exactly: why now? On 8 May 2018, Donald Trump overturned the key foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration, declaring that the US planned to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Declaring that the accord was among the worst ever negotiated, the Trump White House made clear that it had no intention of trying to woo Iran in from the cold, using trade and a relaxation of sanctions to entice it behave as a status quo power and to halt its nuclear programme, in the hopes that over the years it would be tamed to the point that it no longer desired one.
Rather, the Trump administration views the JCPOA as a sucker’s bet, wherein an economically strengthened Iran, now with debilitating sanctions removed, would simply out-wait the rest of the world. Within the course of a generation, and without straying from the terms of the JCPOA, this economically emboldened Tehran would instead simply start up its nuclear programme once the JCPOA’s time limits ran out, and waltz into the nuclear club with few questions asked.
Determined to avoid this happening, the White House moved to a position of “maximum pressure” on the mullahs, re-imposing US sanctions, threatening European countries (which still hewed to the JCPOA) with loss of access to the vast US market if they continued doing business with Iran, and announcing its intent of sanctioning the whole of the Iranian energy industry, the life-blood of the country.
This latter initiative, even if only partially achieved, would drive a stake through the heart of the Iranian body politic.
This is Iran’s defiant response: that, just short of war, it can make itself such a nuisance on the international stage that Europeans would plead with the US to at least halt its unremitting pressure on the already enfeebled Iranian economy.
Iran is trying to tap-dance on the line of outright conflict with the US, without falling off of it into actual war. Tehran is illustrating that the price to be paid for its continued ostracism will be an increasingly high one for the global economy, as it can disrupt assured global energy supplies at will, all the while claiming a semi-plausible deniability.
This is brinksmanship of the first order, and amounts to a major global political risk for the foreseeable future. Poirot may not be needed to sort this tangle out; a statesman of vision surely is.