ISTANBUL — Suspected Iranian attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman provoked a sharp spike in tensions, triggering concerns about a possible war between Iran and the United States.
The New York Times reported June 15 that US Defence Department officials “weighed tactical responses to the attacks,” including deploying “as many as 6,000” additional US Navy, US Air Force and US Army personnel to the Arabian Gulf.
“We may be in the run-up leading to a military confrontation and this will not be a confrontation by accident but one by choice,” said Carlo Masala, an international affairs expert at Bundeswehr University in Munich.
Attacks early June 13 targeted two ships about 40km south of the Iranian coast. The Front Altair, loaded with the flammable hydrocarbon mixture naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire. A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, carrying methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, requested aid. The crews from both vessels left their ships.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of being behind the incidents. He suggested that Tehran had opted for violence to force the United States to end economic sanctions. “Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” Pompeo said.
US President Donald Trump blamed Tehran for the attacks. “Iran did do it,” he said on Fox News. Regarding Tehran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Trump said, if that happened, the important passageway would not be closed for long.
The US military released a video it said shows Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers, suggesting Iran sought to remove evidence.
News of the attacks sent oil prices soaring over concerns that tanker traffic in crucial shipping routes through the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz could be threatened.
The June 13 incident resembled attacks on four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah May 12. US officials accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, which attach magnetically to the hull of a ship.
A day before the tanker attacks, Saudi Arabia, a close US ally and an arch-foe of Iran, accused Tehran of ordering a missile strike by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis that wounded 26 people at the Abha International Airport in south-western Saudi Arabia.
“The continuation of the Iranian regime’s aggression and reckless escalation, whether directly or through its militias, will result in grave consequences,” Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman posted on Twitter.
Given the escalation, the Trump administration could come under pressure from domestic supporters to act against Iran.
Masala said possible retaliatory US strikes would not be comparable to the all-out invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. “It would be ‘everything you can do in one night,’” Masala said by telephone. “There would be strikes against Iranian nuclear installations and command centres but no effort at regime change.”
Iran would likely respond with attacks by proxy forces, he said.
As the attacks on the oil tankers raised the spectre of war, they also upended diplomatic initiatives to end the crisis.
Just days after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas left Tehran empty-handed following talks with the Iranian leadership, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received the news of the tanker attacks while on his own mediation mission in Tehran. Reports of the incidents came in as Abe sat down with Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an attempt to ease tensions between Iran and the United States.
A day before the tanker attacks, Abe warned that any “accidental conflict” that could be sparked amid the heightened US-Iran tensions must be avoided. There was little sign that Abe’s plea for restraint was heeded.
Khamenei continued to taunt the United States, saying that, while Tehran doesn’t seek nuclear weapons, “America could not do anything” to stop Iran if it did.
In a move likely to be seen by the United States and its allies as another Iranian threat, Tehran claimed Iran was responsible for maintaining the security of the Strait of Hormuz.
Masala said that if elements of the Iranian state apparatus had been involved in the tanker attacks, the escalation could be described as an act of hybrid warfare, in which attacks are not attributable to a certain player with accuracy. Masala pointed to Russian military activities in eastern Ukraine as an example.
“That makes it extremely difficult for the United States to legitimise military action against Iran and to find allies,” Masala said.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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