Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Picture: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Picture: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI

In the Middle East, a region littered with tinder and primed with TNT-powered polarisation always ready to blow, there are far too many people playing with matches.

This month’s leading pyromaniacs are the US and Iran. President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, impelled by his extremist national security adviser John Bolton, who has long sought regime change in the Islamic republic, has sent a military task force to the Gulf. This is purportedly to counter unspecified threats from Iran and its allies to US interests.

As if on cue, four commercial vessels, including two Saudi Arabian oil tankers, appear to have been sabotaged or attacked just off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. This comes in the wake of reiterated threats by Iranian leaders that they would retaliate against any aggression by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf through which about a third of the world’s oil is transported.

There must be a suspicion that deliberate provocations are hastening events. The Middle East is notoriously prone to conspiracy theories.

If this were the set-up for an apocalyptic thriller it might seem a bit contrived. As a chain of events colliding in a bad reality TV show — the genre in which this US president used to shine — it is chilling.

All the more so in light of Tuesday’s still unclear accounts that pumping stations of the state oil company Saudi Aramco at Yanbu on the kingdom’s Red Sea coast were hit by drones. The Iran-aligned Houthi militia in neighbouring Yemen said it attacked Saudi installations, without specifying where.

Murky as they are, these events could set the US and Iran on the path to war.

There must be a suspicion that deliberate provocations are hastening events. The Middle East is notoriously prone to conspiracy theories. Yet that is in part because its rulers (and outside actors caught in its webs) compulsively conspire, and because it has been the arena of some of the most epic conspiracies of the past century.

The US and its British allies concocted or embellished evidence of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Washington has form on this: from the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incidents of 1964 that enabled America to go all-out into the Vietnam war, to the opportunist use of the 1898 accidental explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbour that enabled it to prise Cuba and the Philippines from Spain.

Yet there must also be a lively suspicion that Iran is using pinprick assaults to send a warning to the US and its regional allies that they can expect a multi-barrelled response if they really mean to attack.

Note that, for all the Iranian breast-beating, nothing has actually happened in the Strait of Hormuz or the Gulf. The tanker incidents took place off Fujairah, one of the seven UAE city-states, on the Gulf of Oman. Fujairah is not just a bunkering hub for Gulf tanker traffic but the end of an oil pipeline built as a partial alternative to the vulnerable Strait of Hormuz.

Similarly, the drone attacks on Aramco happened at another pipeline terminus high up the Red Sea, just as Houthi forces started withdrawing from southerly Red Sea ports where the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel feared they had a grip on another exit chokepoint for maritime traffic, the Bab al-Mandab.

Interpreting messaging by missile is not an exact science. But the Houthi withdrawal is supposedly part of UN mediation efforts to end the devastating war in Yemen, in which the Saudis and the UAE have helped bring the poorest Arab country to its knees with famine, cholera and bombardment. The signal may be that Iran has alternatives.

Iran had strictly observed a UN Security Council-ratified deal it struck in 2015 with the US and five other world powers — France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia — to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew from that agreement last year, and is using US financial and military might to strangle the Iranian economy, reimposing sanctions and threatening allies as well as adversaries who continue doing business with Iran.

This month, a year after the US tore up this landmark agreement, President Hassan Rouhani, its architect on the Iranian side, said Tehran would cease to observe a number of its requirements. Iran’s most important move would be to increase the level to which it can enrich uranium — now capped at a purity of 3.67%, whereas a nuclear bomb would require 90% — unless the other partners to the 2015 deal find a way to deliver the promised economic benefits within 60 days.

That is unlikely. European companies look unwilling to risk being shut out of the US market and the international financial system by continuing to trade with Iran.

But Iran keeps signalling that it will not back down. Helped by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime, and by its salvage of Bashar al-Assad’s minority regime in Syria allied with Russian air power, Iran has forged a Shia axis from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

Along this corridor it has a power structure of missiles and militias. For Tehran to scale back its presence in Syria, in particular — where its forces come under regular attack by the Israeli air force — would require US concessions that a Trump administration advised by hawks such as  Bolton is unlikely to make.

If the oil tanker and Aramco incidents are Iranian shots across the US bow, they are risky. There is a famous school of quietists among Shia clergy. It does not include the theocrats in power in Tehran.

© Financial Times Limited 2019