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BREAKING NEWS

Ship sabotage mystery raises fears of accidental conflict with Iran

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Image: A coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah,
A coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, on Monday. -
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Jon Gambrell
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At first glance, it was possible to miss the puncture at the waterline of the Andrea Victory, a 600-foot Norwegian oil tanker anchored off the United Arab Emirates.

The damage appeared relatively minor, and no one has been officially blamed.

And yet, there are growing fears that this mysterious, obscure incident could become a catalyst — accidental or otherwise — that inflames the already knife-edge tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The Andrea Victory was one of four ships damaged in what officials are calling a coordinated sabotage attack carried out early Sunday.

Two of the ships were from Saudi Arabia, and one of them was set to deliver crude oil to the U.S., according to Riyadh's energy ministry. A fourth nearby vessel was also damaged.

There does not appear to be any official, publicly released information implicating Iran in the incident, save the country's proximity some 60 miles across the Gulf of Oman.

"The available data on the incident is still too scant to pin blame," according to Mohammad Shabani, a researcher at SOAS University of London.

Politics

Nonetheless, at a moment of acute tension with Washington, Iran has quickly become the focus of the fallout.

Since his election in 2016, President Donald Trump and his team have consistently taken a more hawkish stance toward the country than the Obama administration.

The president withdrew from a landmark deal designed to curb Iran's nuclear program last year. Trump complained that, although Iran was complying, the agreement was too soft.

Then the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf last week to counter alleged threats from Tehran.

It also warned that there was an increased risk of Iran "targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels" in the region.

On Monday, Trump stopped short of blaming the country directly for this incident.

"We'll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake," he told reporters. "If they do anything they will suffer greatly."

A coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, on Monday.
A coast guard vessel passes an oil tanker off the coast of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, on Monday.Jon Gambrell

Separately, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday blamed Yemeni rebels aligned with Iran for launching explosives-laden drones at oil facilities. State oil company Aramco shut down pumping on one of its pipelines and oil prices rose sharply, but no injuries or deaths were reported.

The rising temperature has prompted some politicians and experts in Europe to urge calm — particularly when so much seems unclear about who carried out the attack.

"We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at a summit in Brussels with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Politics

Hunt said he was concerned about "an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict." He called for "a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking."

It was the latest sign of daylight between the U.S. and its European allies on their policies regarding Iran. While the European Union shares some of Washington's concerns about the Islamic republic, the 28-country bloc still backs the nuclear deal and wants to salvage it.

What worries some experts in Europe is the bellicose rhetoric being exchanged between the U.S. and Iran.

Never mind who was behind Sunday's attack, it is the mere uncertainty surrounding it, combined with the war-like words exchanged by both sides, that escalates the risk for some misunderstanding leading to war, so this theory goes.

"Regardless of whether these ships got hit by Iranians or not, the Americans and the Iranians have gotten themselves into this cycle where neither seems to be able to back down from making belligerent statements," according to Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

The tough talk employed by Trump, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton carries significant and perhaps unintended and unforeseen risks, Stephens said.

"If that's what drives the Iranians to the negotiating table, then it's a successful tactic," he said. "But it really is playing with fire, and all it takes is for one thing to go wrong because the Middle East is a tinderbox."

The crux of all this is the debilitated Iran nuclear deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned last week that his country might restart enrichment of higher grade nuclear fuel if other nations do not help get around the restrictions imposed by Trump after he pulled out of the agreement.

"The crunch point is whether Iran decides to pull back from its commitments on the nuclear deal," Stephens said. "If it does that, then I think all bets are off really."

Analysis

For its part, Iran has denied all involvement in Sunday's maritime sabotage. While information is scant, some analysts believe the country would be reluctant to sanction such a direct assault and risk triggering a war it would surely lose.

Iran's foreign ministry echoed the conspiracy theories bouncing around some corners of the internet, suggesting it may have been some kind of false-flag operation staged as a convenient pretext to war.

Spokesman Abbas Mousavi spoke of a vague "conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers" and "adventurism by foreigners," according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

As the New Yorker magazine pointed out Monday, the U.S. does have "a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats."

Perhaps the most famous of these werethe disputed Gulf of Tonkin attacks in 1964 that led to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Another possibility is that a militant group such as al Qaeda carried out the assault.

Whoever is responsible, the lack of information is doing little to calm the red-hot tensions that have risen in this part of the world since Trump's inauguration.

"Everyone is being really careful because the implications can be as dangerous as the facts," said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at Chatham House, another London think tank.

"Everybody's posturing," she added, "but with all this heightened rhetoric and movement of military equipment, of course anything could happen and that's what makes this so dangerous."