Chaos in the Gulf?

What is going on in the Gulf of Oman? Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, and two further offshore on June 13.  The most obvious consequence is that the world’s oil supplies are going to be threatened because already the owners of tankers are starting to stop sending them to the Gulf until this situation resolves itself. As of the time of writing, it is unclear who is responsible, although the US has immediately blamed Iran. Iran has previously threatened to close the gulf, and it is easy to jump to the conclusion they are doing it, but the fact is the latest happened at the same time as Japan and Germany are working to ease tensions and to ease sanctions. There was a visit from the Prime Minister of Japan to Tehran so surely that would be a stupid time to do that, especially to Japanese ships. It would be more likely that someone would want to prevent the Japanese from getting friendly with Iran.

The cause of the explosions is believed to be limpet mines. We “know” that because after the explosions, the US released a video showing the Iranian navy sent a boat to rescue sailors on the Japanese ship, and they disabled and removed an unexploded limpet mine. This prodded the US to accuse them of having put it there. There is the question as to why they got there so quickly, but one reasonable answer is the Gulf of Oman is rather narrow, they regularly patrol, and if Iran were innocent and the naval boat heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from a ship, it would be natural for it to go and assist since it could be by far the closest possible source of help.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, immediately blamed Iran, stating his blame was “based on intelligence” and they have the ability. He claimed nobody else had the ability, then he stated that the US will defend its interests, stand by its partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. He offered no evidence for his claim and took zero questions.

An immediate problem here is that Pompeo has previously told blatant lies about Iran, and at an audience at Texas A&M University he seemed to boast that when he was Director of the CIA, “We lied, we cheated, we stole.” In short, he is not a man to be taken at face value, and worse, the US has a history of using lies and false flags to justify military intervention. You may recall the “firm intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction”. John Bolton is also known to be a liar when necessary to achieve his goals, he was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, and he has made statements to the effect that there should be military action against Iran. Back to Pompeo, he was reported here as stating, in response to a question of why Iran would do it, that if you keep poking someone in the eye with a stick, you have to expect a response. That does not prove that Iran did this, but it does strongly suggest that the US has a strongly malevolent policy towards Iran. It also makes a lie of Pompeo’s claim that the attack was unprovoked. If Iran did do it, the sanctions applied to Iran, and Pompeo’s “poking its eyes with a stick” could be regarded as acts of war, and whatever else, they would not be unprovoked.

The next question is how were these mines attached? There would seem to be only two methods: from a boat at sea, or in a harbour. A ship at sea, if there is any sort of watch, would see the perpetrators. There appear to be no reports about this. These were limpet mines, which would be difficult to attach to a moving ship anyway, so perhaps they were attached while in harbour. It should be noted the mines were attached above the waterline. The US video that has shown the Iranians removing an unexploded mine (assuming that was what it was) has the Iranians standing on the deck of a patrol boat to reach it. This would be difficult to attach at sea. Images of the other ship show corresponding holes well above the waterline.

Perhaps we should look at cui bono– who benefits? The Japanese Prime Minister was in Tehran attempting to negotiate a de-escalation of US-Iran tension, and Trump had given his blessing to it. Why then attack a Japanese ship? Why rescue the crew and remove the limpet mine? All this at a time when Iran was busy negotiating with Europe. Why attach explosives so high above the waterline? The only reason for doing that is that you do not wish to sink the ship. Why not? Presumably because you do not want any accidental evidence that it was you who did it to blame you for the damage. So who wants to merely be a nuisance and strictly limit any damage?

There are other players. The region is torn with the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Iran is helping Shias and has fought Sunni extremists, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, and it supports the Houthis in Yemen, who are being bombed by the Saudis on a regular basis. Against Iran is a group of countries including the Sunni states, probably the Sunnis in Iraq, al Qaeda and its offshoots, and, for totally different reasons, Israel and the US. The problem for the Sunni states such as the Saudis is that while they have a lot of money and buy a lot of armaments, and are happy enough to bomb the defenceless, they are not soldiers and do not want to fight on the ground. Accordingly, they might well want to goad the US into going to war with Iran.

So who did it? I do not know, but common sense suggests to me one more likely suspect would be some Sunni fringe group, such as al Qaeda, or one of its many offshoots, out for revenge against Iran. They cannot get it themselves directly, but they would have their revenge if the US went to war against Iran. There is reasonable evidence consistent with it having done that in Syria with the so-called chemical weapon attacks. The area is a powder keg.  Against that, why protect the ship against sinking? If ships sank, the US would be more likely to go to war. However, despite what some in the US may have us believe, I believe it really does not want to get into a war with Iran. While Iraq had an ideal landscape for mechanised war, Iran does not, and unlike the Iraqis, the Iranians have had some battle experience. A war there would be much worse for America than Afghanistan was, and that was not exactly good.

Trump and Agreements

My scientific background means that I tend to think that decisions should be evidence based, and be formed after analyzing the information available to whoever is making the decision. But a further point, and one I try to put into my novels, is that decisions involving human activity such as politics or confrontation should relate also to the future consequences. If you are going to make a decision that has adverse consequences, there should be the probability that beneficial ones will significantly outweigh the adverse ones. An interesting point here is that very frequently the adverse consequences can be seen fairly clearly and they are likely to happen, while the beneficial ones tend to rely on hopes. Even an act like buying something falls into this. The immediate adverse consequence is that sum of money is no longer available; the hope is the item will be beneficial. In this case you can probably guess that it will be, but on the other hand when you are young and you buy a used car you can never be sure. There can also be unforeseen adverse consequences. When I purchased my first car I had a mechanic check it out, and I knew the motor would need the piston rings replaced. I factored that into the price I offered, but when the motor was disassembled it was found that when originally assembled, someone had put a bearing in back to front, and the cranckshaft had been ground down. That was an unforeseen adverse effect, particularly on my bank balance.

Taking this to international politics, I believe that one important point is that when a country decides to enter an agreement with others, the other parties can accept that the agreement will be honoured. Doubts as to whether the agreement is worthwhile should be ironed out during the negotiations prior to the agreement being signed. In this sense, it is like a business contract. When one company signs a contract with another company, or person, each side assumes that the other will carry out its obligations. If they do not, they tend to end up in court. If there is absolutely no trust, nobody does any business, and if there is no commerce, everybody ends up the loser. Of course, every now and again someone cheats, and the other parties invariably lose. Occasionally, this can become catastrophic. A possible example of this comes from Kobe steel. Generally speaking, Japanese manufacturing has been praised for its adherence to quality control and quality management, but now it has been reported that Kobe Steel has been selling substandard steel for about a decade. Presumably not all has been substandard, but the problem with steel is that it tends to be structural and deep inside something else of considerably more value, so the ripples will go deep if these allegations are true. If so, this situation is now something of a disaster for Kobe Steel, but it would also be very bad for Japanese commerce as a whole.

It is these unforeseen issues that tend to have a lasting effect, but worse is when one side properly follows its obligations and the other side simply refuses, or decides to pull out of the agreement. The threat of pulling out of an agreement if the other side does not make more concessions is a particularly bad procedure. You get all the concessions you think you can, you agree, then after the other side has started to commit itself, you pull out and demand renegotiations. That, at the very least, leaves a bad taste.

Which brings me to President Trump. Since taking office, he has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and in fairness, America had yet to sign, so he was entitled to do that), he has withdrawn from the Paris Accord, he has threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, has signalled that he will withdraw from a trade pact with South Korea, and has now “decertitifed” (whatever that means) a multi-lateral agreement designed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In the latter case, international observers all agree that Iran is keeping to its side of the deal. Within the US he seems to have been trying as hard as he can to hobble Obamacare, seeing as he cannot abolish it altogether. It is as if he is a serial offender. Iran has apparently signalled to North Korea that it is a waste of time entering into an agreement with the US. Given that Kim can read smoke signals too, that is not encouraging.

Being destructive is easy. Anyone can tear up agreements. The problem then is, what happens next? Maybe Trump does not care, on the grounds that the rest of the world needs the US more than the US needs the rest of the world. I hope that is not what he is thinking, because it is not true.

Science and Sanctions

This may seem an odd title in that most people consider science far away from describing human activities. I am not suggesting the scientific method should govern all of human activities, but I think that a little more attention to its methods would help humanity (and I try to show a little of this in my novels, although I am unsure that most would notice). The first important point, of course, is to clarify what the scientific method is. Contrary to what you may see on TV programs, etc, it is not some super geek sitting down solving impossible mathematical equations. Basically, the scientific method is you form propositions, perhaps manipulate them, then check with reality whether they might be correct. The most important feature here is, check the evidence.

What initiated this post was news that the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that will impose new sanctions on Russia, including (according to reports here) the forbidding of any help with Russia’s oil and gas industry, and President Trump has signed it into law. So, what are the premises behind this?

The first one is that foreign countries will oblige and help carry them out.

The second, presumably, is that Russia will now fall into line and do whatever the sanctions are intended to make it do.

The third is, if Russia cannot export more oil or gas, their prices will rise.

The fourth is, removing Russian hydrocarbons from the international market will lead to further markets for US hydrocarbons. Note the US now has the capacity to be a major exporter, thanks to fracking.

The first two depend on each other, and obviously, seeking evidence of the future is not practical, nevertheless we can look at the history of sanctions. Are there any examples of countries “bending the knee” in response to sanctions when they probably would not have done it anyway? I cannot think of any. Obviously, sanctions are less likely to effective if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, which is why the two are linked. The two most recent examples of sanctions are Iran and North Korea. Both have been imposed for sufficient time, and the question is, how effective are they?

In the case of Iran, one objective is claimed to have been met in that Iran argues it no longer has the capacity to make nuclear weapons, however it also claimed that was never its intention. Everyone seems to delight in arguing whether either of those statements is true, but in my opinion nuclear weapons are a poor strategic objective for Iran. I also believe they are a poor option for North Korea, but seemingly someone has to show Kim that is so. For either of them, what would it gain? Iran has opted (if truthful) to avoid nuclear weapons, but then again, what has it gained from doing so? The sanctions America imposed are still largely there. As for the effectiveness of sanctions, it appears that Iran is doing reasonably well, and a number of countries are buying its oil, including China. So I conclude that sanctions are not particularly effective there.

North Korea does not seem in any immediate hurry to “bend the knee” to the US and while it has suffered the harshest sanctions, apparently over the last few years its exports have increased by at least 40%, mainly to China. President Trump has accused China of not helping, and he is correct, but being correct does not get anyone very far. The obvious question is, why is North Korea chasing after better weapons? The answer is obvious: it is at war with the US and South Korea. The Korean War never ended formally. The sides agreed to a ceasefire, but no permanent treaty was signed, so one of the actions that America could have taken in the last sixty years or so would have been to negotiate a formal peace treaty. You may well say, the US would never launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. You may well be right, but are you that sure? From North Korea’s point of view, the US has launched cruise missile attacks frequently against places it does not like, it has significant military bases in Syria, it invaded Iraq, and so on. You might argue that the US was justified because these countries were not behaving, and you may well be right, but from North Korea’s point of view, it is at war with the US already, so it has decided to do what it can to defend itself. One approach to end this ridiculous position would be to at least offer a treaty.

The third and fourth premises are probably ones the US Congress does not advertise, because they are full of self-interest. Apparently there is enough liquefied natural gas able to be produced to substitute for Russian gas in Europe. So, why don’t they sell it? Competition is a good thing, right? The simplest answer is price and cost. Europe would have to build massive lng handling facilities, and pay a lot more for their gas than for Russian gas. And it is here that these sanctions may run into trouble. The Germans will lose heavily from the loss of Russian gas, in part because their industries are involved in expanding the Russian fields and pipelines, and of course, they would have to pay more for gas, and some equipment would need changing for the different nature of the gas.

So, if we return to the evidence, I think we can conclude that these latest attempts at sanctions are more based on self-interest than anything else. There is no evidence they will achieve anything as far as pushing Russia around goes. It is true, if imposed, they would hurt Russia significantly, but they would also hurt Europe, so will Europe cooperate?