Analysis: Gulf of Oman incident and Iran’s dangerous game

Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, a month before the incident on June 13. The most recent incident is much more serious. The US navy has been sent to assist.

 JUNE 13, 2019 11:39

Oman, Strait of Hormuz

A tugboat moves cargo towards the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Musandam province, Oman, July 20, 2018. (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)

Just after eight on Thursday morning the sound of explosions and a distress call were reported in both Oman and Pakistan. Earlier in the morning the US Navy says it had received distress calls at 6:12 and 7:00am. The reports were picked up soon after by Al-Alam which said two explosions had been heard and that two “giant” oil tankers had come under “attack.” The two calls could be linked to two different explosions that were heard.

It is important that Iranian media pick this up because it indicates that they sought to push this story, rather than throw cold water on it. Press TV put up a “breaking” story and so did Tasnim News. Shortly after Al-Mayadeen which is pro-Syria regime also had several tweets about it.

The incident took longer to percolate into other media. Associated Press received comment from a UK navy group that appeared to confirm there was need for “caution” in the area of the incident. The US navy also eventually said they had received a distress call. This was about two hours after the incident. The US navy has a carrier strike group in the area. This is also a sensitive area, off the coast of Iran and near the Straits of Hormuz. A fifth of the world’s oil transits here.

Already tensions were high. Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, a month before the incident on June 13. The US has accused Iran of “almost certainly” being behind that attack. In that attack what appeared to be small mines were attached to the hull of ships but did not sink them. No one was harmed. Two Saudi Arabia, one UAE and one Norwegian oil tanker were harmed.

The incident on Thursday, June 13 is much more serious. The US navy has been sent to assist. Two tankers which were going from the UAE and Saudi ports respectively to Taiwan and Singapore appear to have been affected. Crews were evacuated from the ships.

This is a huge problem for the world’s oil traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and represents a massive escalation. It is not yet determined who did it, but obviously fingers will be pointed at Iran, a likely culprit. Iran has threatened to close the straits of Hormuz before, in light of US pressure and sanctions. But what does Iran gain by doing this right after the visit of the German foreign minister and the current visit of the Japanese Prime Minister? Japan and Germany are seeking to ease tensions. Why would Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the usual suspect, be involved in scuppering the work that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are doing to get around sanctions? Clearly a regime that targets oil tankers is not the moderate one that it wants to portray itself as, nor is it the victim. Iran has claimed to the victim of the US “economic terrorism,” but striking at oil tankers is actual economic terrorism.

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Could it be that two oil tankers burst into flames spontaneously, just bad luck at this most tense time? Iranian media drove the story initially, but now that allegations have emerged that a torpedo and magnetic mine were used, it is Saudi Arabia’s media and western media that is exposing the details. Confirmations have come in from the US and UK navies, Taiwan, and various shipping sources in the area.

This incident, if it is shown to have been caused by torpedoes or Iran, will require a US response. The sabotage in May which came after the US had warned Iran that it would respond to threats, was papered over because the US administration does not actually want a major conflict with Iran. The Trump administration’s policy is to threaten and sanction, it doesn’t want war. But now within the administration there will have to be discussions about how to respond, once a determination is made.

This incident will also spread some fear and panic along the Gulf because all of these tankers and ports are exposed. Iran has shown through its naval drills that it has a variety of weapons at its disposal. This includes precision missiles as well as drones. Recently an Iranian-backed Houthi rebel unit fired a cruise missile that struck a Saudi Airport. The Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles, with ranges of hundreds of kilometers. This is only one example of what Iran is capable of. It knows that it can probe for weaknesses against US allies and that the allies can’t respond because none of them can risk a major war with Iran. A war would destabilize the entire Gulf.

A further issue involves the upcoming Bahrain conference on June 25. The US has managed to get backing for the conference which is supposed to aid the Palestinians. But incidents like this will shift priorities. Tensions in the Gulf are precisely what the US does not want if the IMF and Jordanians and a plethora of other US allies are flying into Bahrain. Iran has called Bahrain and Saudi Arabia ‘”traitors” for aiding the US “plot.” Hezbollah has vowed to oppose the “deal of the century.” Iraq and Lebanon are not attending. The US faces a major obstacle now in contending with this latest incident in the Gulf.

Oil tankers are rarely sabotaged and even more rarely do they suffer explosions. Now in the space of one month six ships have been damaged. As we learn more about the extent, a major emergency in the Gulf could develop.

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