Gulf of Oman tanker attacks steer the Gulf into murky waters

Gulf of Oman tanker attacks steer the Gulf into murky waters
Comment: Allowing partisan convictions to jeopardise our understanding of the facts only risks leading to a dangerous escalation with Iran, writes Dr Ali Bakeer.
7 min read
14 Jun, 2019
Fire and smoke billow from Norwegian owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman [AFP]
On 13 June, two oil tankers were targeted in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz. The area is one of the most strategic choke points in the world, through which over 24 percent of daily global oil production, and nearly 30 percent of the world's seaborne crude oil is shipped.

The two tankers, Norwegian owned "Front Altair", and Japanese owned "Kokura Courageous" were reportedly carrying petrochemical products from UAE and Saudi Arabia to Taiwan and Singapore. The attacks caused the oil prices to rise sharply over fears of potential trade disruptions and a broader military confrontation in the Gulf between Iran and its proxies on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.

The details of exactly how the ships were attacked, and who the perpetrators are, remain unclear. Initial reports attributed one of the assaults to a torpedo attack, others later dismissed this option and reported a possible mine attack. The Japanese tanker owner however, contradicted these assumptions and suggested that his tanker was attacked by "a flying object", possibly a drone.

WATCH: Iran state TV shows video of oil tanker blaze

Regardless of the method, almost all critical assessments concluded that a state actor was behind the operation. The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners established that the two tankers were hit "at or below the waterline, in close proximity to the engine room while underway", adding "They appear to be well planned and co-ordinated attacks."

US foreign minister Mike Pompeo - who has been ratcheting up the war rhetoric for weeks - pointed the finger at Iran, who, for its part has criticised the accusation as "baseless".

Pompeo emphasised that "This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication."

US Central Command subsequently released a detailed statement supporting this. 

Iran vs Saudi Arabia

The attacks on the oil tankers take place in a highly politicised and polarised atmosphere in the region between pro-Iran, and pro-Saudi allegiances. Within hours, a war of narratives had begun. Analysts in both camps rushed to the defense of their preferred regime, rather than focusing on the facts and the details related to the case.

Distinctly lacking, however, among those so entrenched in their positions, is understanding the increasingly destabilising regional policies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same time. In other words, partisan convictions should not be allowed to jeopardise our judgement, or cause us to assess events in a way that fits into pre-existing narratives.

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While Iran has been identified by the US as the primary suspect, regime apologists have resorted to fuzzy claims and false flag theories, such as accusing other Gulf countries or the US of staging the attacks.

Those who support such claims argue that the aim is to thwart diplomatic efforts, tighten sanctions on Iran, and ultimately trigger a war against it. They also argue that Iran cannot be tied to the attacks, and unlike other possible actors, Tehran has no interest in doing such a thing.

Yet, accusing the US or others of staging such attacks ignores the fact that Washington doesn't need to provoke Iran, or launch a war, however much Bolton and Pompeo might like it.

The sanctions in place are proving brutally effective, slashing Iran's oil exports from about 2.8 million barrels per day, to around 400,000 barrels per day. Iran's regional proxies are under immense pressure, and the regime is left with less money to fund his regional operations.

Yet, accusing the US of staging such attacks ignores the fact that Washington doesn't need to provoke Iran

The US administration is well positioned to zero Tehran's exports of oil, and unlike Iran, it has all the needed time to force the regime to cave in. There is no need for it to attack international tankers, disrupt the flow of oil and trade, and endanger the security of the most important maritime lanes in the world.

As for Saudi Arabia and UAE, both countries have an interest in blaming Iran for almost everything, whether it is responsible or not. And although they have been pushing the US to increase pressure on Tehran, suggesting that they did stage the latest attacks on the tankers themselves is extremely far fetched. Neither country has the capacity or expertise to do it, and there is no way they could hide such an act.

Why Iran?

Iran - and its important to understand the regime has different, conflicting constituents - is the primary suspect. Not just because there is someone out there, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE or the US wants to pin the blame on Tehran, but simply because it has the capacity and expertise needed to execute such attacks. It also has a history of defying international law and targeting oil tankers. Lastly, top Iranian political and military officials have openly threatened to disrupt the international oil industry, the maritime trade routes.

The pattern of events that has unfolded during the last month or so, which includes the targeting of four oil tankers off Fujairah, oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, an airport in Abha, and finally the two tankers in Gulf of Oman, all appear to suggest that the most recent attacks on the oil tankers carry the unique imprint of the Iranian regime. But how and why such thing would benefit Iran? 

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If Iran is behind these attacks, the low intensity but dangerous escalation through targeting the oil tankers demonstrates their willingness to act on threats

As sanctions are choking the Iranian regime slowly but painfully, Tehran feels more isolated and helpless than ever. In the current circumstances, the regime can neither go to negotiations with the US, nor to a direct war. In this context, despite the high risks involved, indirect asymmetric attacks could serve as good leverage for the regime.

The attacks have already increased the price of oil, and this is crucially important for Tehran in order to compensate for the acute drop in its exports, and could also be designed to harm Trump just before the upcoming presidential election.

This action may also be intended to serve as a warning against continuing US sanctions on its oil and petrochemicals.

Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader threatened the US recently, saying that oil sanctions "won't be left without a response." Likewise, Javad Zarif threatened that Washington "should be prepared for the consequences". A senior Iranian military official boasted that Iran could sink US warships in the Gulf region using missiles and "secret weapons". But this sort of sabre-rattling should also be taken with a pinch of salt.  

If Iran is behind these attacks, the low intensity but dangerous escalation through targeting the oil tankers demonstrates their willingness to act on threats, to target the US in the Gulf, to prevent other Gulf countries from exporting their oil, to disrupt the oil trade, and to close the Strait of Hormuz, should they so wish.

Indeed, without any concrete and verifiable evidence they are responsible, they can convey their message while depriving the US of retaliation that doesn't look like escalation.

By pushing the limits of the situation and playing on the edge of the abyss, Iran could be hoping that such operations might force the US to reconsider its sanctions, or de-escalate the situation, for fear of the high stakes for itself, its allies and the security of the Gulf.

Such an equation however, involves a real gamble by Iran, and miscalculations on any side could lead to a disastrous war.

Ali Bakeer is an Ankara based political analyst/researcher. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations. His interests include Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.