Strange things are afoot in the Strait of Hormuz

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WHEN DONALD TRUMP hired John Bolton to be his national security adviser, he reportedly joked that the mustachioed hawk was “going to get us into a war”. It is easy to see why. When serving under George W. Bush, Mr Bolton embellished intelligence on Cuban and Syrian weapons and lobbied hard for the invasion of Iraq. After leaving government he argued that America should bomb Iran to set back its nuclear programme. Now that he’s back, he appears to be on the warpath once again.

It was Mr Bolton, not the commander-in-chief, who announced on May 5th that America had dispatched an aircraft-carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf. This was in response to undisclosed intelligence which, unnamed officials claimed, showed that Iran and its proxies were planning attacks on American forces (or its allies) in the region. On May 9th Mr Bolton reviewed war plans, updated at his request, that call for sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks or restarts work on nuclear weapons, according to the New York Times. Such planning is not a sign of imminent conflict. But Mr Trump is reported to be telling that joke again, now with more seriousness, as Mr Bolton also ratchets up pressure on Venezuela.

Some fear Mr Bolton is looking for a provocation by Iran, adding ominous undertones to recent events in the region. On May 12th four oil tankers were struck by a “sabotage attack” off Fujairah, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The incident remains murky, but Emirati, Saudi and American officials claim that four ships—two Saudi, one Emirati and the other Norwegian—had 1.5-metre to 3-metre holes blown in their hull, near the waterline. Unnamed American officials were quoted fingering Iran or its proxies as the likely culprit, without presenting evidence. Fujairah lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a key chokepoint that Iranian officials have threatened to block if America attacks.

That was not the only flare-up. On May 14th Saudi Arabia said two of its oil-pumping stations were attacked. The damage was limited, but the Houthis, Shia rebels who control much of Yemen, claimed responsibility and threatened more such attacks. They are fighting a Saudi-led coalition, supported by America, that backs the Yemeni government. America and Saudi Arabia accuse the Houthis of being an Iranian puppet. That is an exaggeration, though the Houthis have received arms from Iran. The facilities that came under attack lie more than 700km north of the Yemeni border. They were probably hit by long-range drones that the Houthis acquired last year.

The two incidents taken together highlight the vulnerability of Gulf energy supplies—and thus Gulf economies. Fujairah is connected via a pipeline to Abu Dhabi's oil fields. The pumping stations hit in Saudi Arabia are part of the “east-west pipeline”, which moves crude from eastern oil fields to western ports. Both pipelines are meant to help producers bypass the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has a record of subversive action and supporting allied militias in the region—and of attacking shipping. The so-called tanker war between Iran and Iraq ravaged international shipping in the 1980s. Over 500 ships were attacked. Four years into the tanker war, after an American-flagged ship was struck by an Iranian mine, America conducted its largest ever attack on Iran, destroying two oil platforms and sinking a frigate. At least some in the White House look back fondly on that show of force.

But the timing of the incident in Fujairah, and the quickness with which American officials blamed Iran, has raised eyebrows. Max Boot, a hawkish foreign-policy scholar, writes that Mr Bolton “may be trying to provoke Iran into striking first”. He and others are reminded of the Gulf of Tonkin incident—a murky naval skirmish in 1964 used by America as a pretext for expanding its involvement in Vietnam.

Some officials have tried to calm matters. On May 14th John Abizaid, America’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who previously commanded American troops in the Middle East, called for a “thorough investigation to understand what happened [and] why it happened”. Only then, he said, should America “come up with reasonable responses short of war”. Mr Abizaid insists that it is not in America’s interest to have a conflict.

Even so, European officials are nervous. On May 13th Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, said he was “very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended”. That was shortly before a meeting with Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, who received a frosty reception from his European counterparts in Brussels. On May 14th Spain, sensing trouble ahead, withdrew its frigate from the American aircraft-carrier strike group heading towards the Gulf. Major General Christopher Ghika, the top British officer in the American-led coalition against Islamic State, said, “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”

Many in Europe blame America for the rising tensions. Last year Mr Trump pulled out of a deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in return for economic relief. Now he seems intent on undermining what is left of the pact by imposing crippling sanctions on Iran. On May 8th President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would abrogate parts of the deal and gave the remaining signatories—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union—60 days to work out how to relieve the economic pressure it was under. If they cannot, Iran would feel free to enrich uranium to ever higher levels, which would shorten its path to producing fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Mr Trump, for his part, runs hot and cold on Iran. After Mr Rouhani’s announcement, he said Iran should call him for direct talks (Mr Rouhani has spurned several such offers). After the incident in Fujairah, however, Mr Trump said, “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens.” But he said the war plans involving tens of thousands of troops are fake news: “We have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that.” Though he added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”