Caught red-handed? As expected, the U.S. and most of its Gulf allies on Friday sought to pin the blame for Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Iran. And, as expected, Tehran denied any involvement, effectively claiming the incident was actually a false flag attack. But the U.S. Central Command released two curious bits of evidence making its case. The first was a photo taken around midday from aboard the USS Bainbridge showing what the Navy said was an unexploded limpet mine attached to one of the tankers at roughly the same height of the hole caused by Thursday’s explosion. The second was grainy footage taken by a U.S. surveillance plane later in the afternoon of what the Pentagon said was a crew aboard an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gashti-class patrol boat removing the unexploded mine. The photo and video raise more questions than they answer, and even if the U.S. interpretation is accurate, it doesn’t prove that Iran is responsible for the attacks. (Theoretically, Iran would have reason to want to do its own analysis on the object.) The owner of the ship, meanwhile, dismissed the limpet mine theory and said the crew saw “flying objects” right before the explosions.” Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to suspect Iranian involvement on some level. Tehran has well-developed asymmetric maritime capabilities and at least some plausible motives to carry out such an attack – e.g. making clear that sanctions have backed it into a corner and/or boosting oil prices to help offset lost revenue. On the other hand, the attacks risk hardening international sentiment against Iran and giving its hostile neighbors a reason to fight at a time when Tehran can’t afford a conflict. Bottom line: It could be Tehran. It could be a rogue, hardline Iranian faction. (Unconfirmed reports emerged this week of the arrest of several IRGC commanders.) It could be anti-Iran elements from elsewhere in the region seeking to force a reluctant U.S. into war. No theory fits neatly with all the available facts and what we see as each side’s interests. But then, creating confusion was probably a core goal of the attacks. What matters most at this point is how each side seeks to use the fog of quasi-war to its advantage.
Sudan’s morass. The U.S. this week joined Ethiopia in an effort to broker a deal between Sudan’s ruling military council and opposition groups bringing about a return to civilian rule. On Wednesday, Washington’s newly appointed special envoy to Sudan and the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa met with Sudanese Deputy Foreign Minister Ilham Ibrahim. There’s evidently quite a bit of work to do. Sudan’s main opposition group, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces, said on Thursday that it would not negotiate directly with the ruling military council. And, as perhaps could be expected, the junta is bristling at attempts by outside powers to resolve the deadlock, saying yesterday that it would not cooperate with any international probe into the June 3 crackdown on demonstrators, which led to more than 100 deaths. The council also rejected a proposal by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to move talks to Addis Ababa – though a council spokesman expressed openness to continued Ethiopian mediation. The military council’s own grip on power is extremely tenuous, making it difficult for it to commit to meaningful negotiations with the opposition even if it wanted to. A council spokesman on Thursday said it had thwarted several recent coup attempts and arrested members of two separate groups seeking to oust it. And today, the council announced corruption charges against jailed former President Omar al-Bashir, likely antagonizing his remaining allies in the military and security establishment. It’s going to take a long time for stability to return to Sudan, and the vacuum of power will have wide-ranging implications. For example, the effective collapse of the state has contributed to a resurgence of violence in the eastern region of Darfur, where more than 30 people have been killed over the past week in clashes involving feuding tribes and criminal gangs.
Reaching common ground on trade. Tokyo is reportedly mulling offering to cut tariffs on imported U.S. farm goods to the levels offered to members of the revived Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tokyo had been resisting such a move; it wanted to keep some incentives in place for the U.S. to return to the trade bloc it once championed. But Tokyo mostly just wants trade tension with the U.S. to go away, and a U.S. return to the TPP won’t happen anytime soon, anyway. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commerce Department has reportedly decided to slash the countervailing duty on hot-rolled steel from South Korean steel giant POSCO from 41.57 percent to just 0.55 percent. And on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the possibility of talks aimed at reinstating the Generalized System of Preferences for India. Last year, the program allowed India to export some $5.6 billion in goods – including textiles, jewelry, auto parts and agricultural products – to the U.S. duty-free.
- Turkey submitted new evidence to the U.S. in its ongoing attempt to extradite Pennsylvania-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Ankara claims orchestrated the 2016 failed coup attempt.
- China’s shadow banking crackdown has reduced high-risk financial assets in the country by nearly $2 trillion over the past two years, according to the chairman of the Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission.
- A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in both chambers of the U.S. Congress that would require annual reviews of whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from mainland China to justify the city’s status as a U.S. special trading partner.
- Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a second attempted attack on a Saudi airport this week. Saudi Arabia said its missile defenses intercepted the five drones used in the attempted strike.
- India is planning to launch its own space station.
- Australia’s planned investment fund for regional infrastructure will reportedly become operational by July 31.
- The U.S. Department of Commerce will open an office in Georgia that will represent U.S. economic interests in the region.
- Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Belarus said his country is prepared to supply oil to Belarusian refineries but noted that Russia’s approval for the transport of the supplies was still needed.