Even in ordinary times, an attack on commercial tankers near the Strait of Hormuz – a vital sea lane for the world’s oil supplies, located between Iran and Oman – would be a matter of concern for global trade.
That such incidents were reported on Thursday, at a time of soaring US-Iran tensions, makes them an even greater threat. Not just for global commerce, but also for peace and security in the region and the world.
Thursday’s incidents, which caused damage to the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, came just a month after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported “sabotage attacks” against four other commercial ships off the coast of its Fujairah emirate.
The US, which has been building up its military presence in the region, has blamed Iran for both events.
Hours after the latest incidents were reported, the US military released a grainy video that it said showed members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) trying to remove an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, also called the timing of the reported attacks “suspicious”, given that a Japanese-owned ship was damaged while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a visit to Tehran, seeking to defuse US-Iran frictions.
As calls grew for an international inquiry, the owner of the Kokuka Courageous cast doubt on the US narrative, saying the vessel’s crew saw a “flying object” before it was rocked by a second blast.
“I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship,” Yutaka Katada said on Friday.
Analysts reacted to the US allegations with scepticism. Even those who found the claims credible said Washington may have forced Iran’s hand with its “maximum pressure” campaign of punishing financial sanctions.
Threat to close Strait of Hormuz
“Tehran has the capability to commit such attacks and has threatened to interfere with shipping in the Gulf while it is also in a state of desperation due to the tight sanctions and international isolation,” said Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University in the US.
That Iranian threat followed a US bid to bring Iran’s oil revenues down to zero. The US move, announced in May, came after Washington re-imposed sanctions on Iran, a year after exiting an international accord that lifted global sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
US President Donald Trump said the renewed financial pressure was aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a new deal that would also address its ballistic missiles project.
Iran, however, has remained defiant.
Despite US sanctions triggering an economic crisis in the country, Iranian leaders said they would not be bullied into talks with the US. Instead, they threatened counter-measures, including the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of all oil traded by sea passes.
“According to international law, the Strait of Hormuz is a marine passageway and if we are barred from using it, we will shut it down,” General Alireza Tangsiri, commander-in-chief of the IRGC’s navy, said in April.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the same last December. “If one day they want to prevent the export of Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf,” he had warned.
The Islamic Republic has also warned it will withdraw from the nuclear accord if other parties to the agreement – Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China – fail to shield Tehran from the US penalties.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said if Iran was responsible for Thursday’s attacks, it was carrying out its repeated threats that other countries in the region would also “face obstacles” in exporting oil.
“The aim would be to show the international community that its acquiescence to US secondary sanctions is not cost-free and to show the Trump administration that far from curbing Iran’s ‘malign’ policies, US actions are incentivising them.”
But with Iran still appealing to the remaining signatories to deliver on its promised economic benefits, Abrahms said it was not in Tehran’s interests to disrupt trade in the Gulf.
“The question arises as to why Tehran would commit such an attack because it only harms Iran on the world stage and helps its enemies, while scepticism is also warranted due to the unreliability of [US] intelligence,” he said, referring to the faulty intelligence Washington used to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Despite Iran’s defiance to the US’s moves, attacks on international oil shipments in the Gulf represented a qualitatively different type of activity, others noted.
“It could not be Iran’s job or even that of certain elements within the Iranian state,” said Hamidreza Azizi, professor of international relations at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran.
“Consider the coincidence of these attacks with Abe’s landmark trip to Tehran, the presence of Russian crew on Norwegian-owned Front Altair, the proximity of the incident site to Iran’s territorial waters, and finally the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s emphasis that “resistance” does not mean military action, and you will realise Tehran is not the culprit,” he said.
“It sounds like a provocative false-flag operation staged by Iran’s regional nemeses so they could play the victim and portray Tehran as the chief devil in the room even as they are trying to torpedo any chance of negotiations between Tehran and Washington and dragging Iran into a conflict they crave for but cannot win alone,” Azizi added.
Regardless of who was behind Thursday’s incidents, insecurity in the Gulf is likely to persist “until the US and its allies change their aggressive behaviour towards Iran and let off steam”, said an IRGC-affiliated intelligence analyst.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, the analyst said some in Tehran believe a large-scale confrontation in the Gulf is unlikely because such a conflict would also have severe consequences for the US and its regional allies.
“If these escalations lead to military confrontation between Iran and the US by any chance, Tehran’s response will not be limited to the US, but will definitely involve its allies in the neighbourhood; they will see the end of their rule,” the analyst explained.
“They might be hoping for a limited conflict, but that’s not how things will turn out in the case of Iran. It will be an all-out war but let’s not forget that it was the US that started this spiral.”
Is the US media beating the drums of war on Iran?
I really cannot begin to fathom how stupid you would have to be to believe that Iran would attack a Japanese oil tanker at the very moment that the Japanese Prime Minister was sitting down to friendly, US-disapproved talks in Tehran on economic cooperation that can help Iran survive the effects of US economic sanctions.
The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was holed above the water line. That rules out a torpedo attack, which is the explanation being touted by the neo-cons.
The second vessel, the Front Altair, is Norwegian owned and 50% Russian crewed (the others being Filipinos). It is owned by Frontline, a massive tanker leasing company that also has a specific record of being helpful to Iran in continuing to ship oil despite sanctions.
It was Iran that rescued the crews and helped bring the damaged vessels under control.
That Iran would target a Japanese ship and a friendly Russian crewed ship is a ludicrous allegation. They are however very much the targets that the USA allies in the region – the Saudis, their Gulf Cooperation Council colleagues, and Israel – would target for a false flag. It is worth noting that John Bolton was meeting with United Arab Emirates ministers two weeks ago – both ships had just left the UAE.
The USA and their UK stooges have both immediately leapt in to blame Iran. The media is amplifying this with almost none of the scepticism which is required. I cannot think of a single reason why anybody would believe this particular false flag. It is notable that neither Norway nor Japan has joined in with this ridiculous assertion.
One of the tankers that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman was struck by a flying object, the ship’s Japanese operator said on Friday, expressing doubt that a mine had been attached to its hull.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that American intelligence agencies had concluded that Tehran was behind the disabling of two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a vital conduit for much of the world’s oil. Iranian officials denied any involvement in the events, which have escalated tensions in the region.
In an interview broadcast on Friday by “Fox & Friends,” President Trump directly accused Tehran, saying, “Iran did do it.”
“You saw the boat,” he said. “It has Iran written all over it.” Mr. Trump added: “They didn’t want the evidence left behind. They don’t know that we have things that we can detect in the dark that work very well. We have that. It was them that did it.”
But Yutaka Katada, the company’s president, citing accounts from the ship’s crew, said Friday: “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”
“Our crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object,” Mr. Katada said of the incident on Thursday.
Mr. Trump also addressed the possibility that Iran may somehow close the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for a third of all crude oil by tanker.
“It’s not going to be closed for long and they know it,” he said. “They’ve been told in strong terms. We want to get them back to the table if they want to go back. I’m ready when they are. I’m in no rush.”
On Friday, meanwhile, as other nations like China called for an easing of tensions in the region Yemen’s Houthi faction launched its second attack in days against an airport in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis lead a coalition that is fighting the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, in Yemen’s civil war.
A Houthi television channel said the group had launched a drone attack on Abha International Airport, while the Saudi military said it had intercepted five Houthi drones and the airport was operating normally.
The Saudis said 26 people were injured in a Houthi strike on the same airport on Wednesday. The Houthis said that attack was carried out using a cruise missile.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote Friday on Twitter that American officials “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran” without evidence, showing that the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were trying to “sabotage diplomacy.”
“It is true that we are exchanging information in close communication with the U.S., but we are still in the process of gathering information, so I’ll refrain from making any prejudgments,” he said at a regular news briefing.
Without assigning blame, France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday: “We call upon all of the involved stakeholders, with whom we are in permanent contact, to exercise restraint and to de-escalate. We also reiterate our commitment to the freedom of navigation, which must absolutely be preserved.”
“This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension,” Mr. Hunt said in a statement on Friday. “I have been in contact with Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our U.S. allies.”
Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates, wrote on Twitter Thursday that the attack was “a worrying development and a dangerous escalation that calls for the international community to move towards ensuring regional security and stability.”
A Dutch company, Boskalis, said it would salvage the two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. Royal Boskalis Westminster said in a statement on Friday that the insurers of the tankers, the Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous, had appointed its subsidiary SMIT Salvage to salvage both vessels and their cargoes.
Boskalis said the situation of the Front Altair, which was carrying a petroleum product, was “still worrisome.” It added that the fire on board has been extinguished.
Later on Friday, Reuters reported that the Kokuka Courageous, was being towed and heading toward the United Arab Emirates’ port of Khor Fakkan, according to its operator, Bernhard Schulte Ship management.