A picture from Iranian News Agency ISNA on June 13 2019 reportedly shows fire and smoke billowing from Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. Picture: ISNA/AFP
A picture from Iranian News Agency ISNA on June 13 2019 reportedly shows fire and smoke billowing from Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. Picture: ISNA/AFP

Dubai — Attacks on two oil tankers near the entrance to the Persian Gulf on Thursday have raised fears that the strategic region could be headed towards a military confrontation between the US and Iran, despite fervent mediation efforts by Japan, Germany and the EU.

1. What are the recent frictions about?

US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the multi-party 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018 and re-imposed sanctions on Iran — pressuring it to end its missile programme and support for proxy militias. Tensions spiked after the US ended sanctions waivers early last month that had allowed some major importers, including Japan, to continue buying Iranian oil. If prevented from using the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has warned it may close the waterway that accounts for about 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments.

The latest attacks followed the sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last month. Back then, the attackers deployed naval mines in a manner that would do damage but not risk a major explosion of the vessels, according to a probe by the UAE.

2. Who is behind today’s attacks?

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks but the US and its allies will undoubtedly point the finger at Iran, said Fawaz A Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed to the “suspicious” timing of the attacks on the day Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an effort to restore calm. An Iranian government spokesperson also cautioned countries in the region “not to fall into the trap of some who profit from instability in the region”.

The US accused Iran of being behind last month’s sabotage of four ships though it did not provide proof. US national security adviser John Bolton said the naval mines used almost certainly came from Iran.

A joint probe by the UAE, Norway and Saudi Arabia unveiled on June 7 put the blame for the sabotage on a “state actor” without naming the country.

3. Will these attacks derail diplomatic efforts?

The attack on Thursday casts a pall over diplomatic efforts to avert conflict. It comes in week that has seen German foreign minister Heiko Maas visit Tehran followed quickly by Abe. Iran’s supreme leader has already dismissed Trump’s calls for talks, telling Abe that Iran has no confidence the US will stand by its commitments.

Efforts to quell tensions include a tour of the Gulf by the secretary-general of the EU’s diplomatic service, Helga Schmid, who started with a June 12 visit to the UAE and will continue with stops in Oman, Qatar and Iran.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos may also play a role in regional mediation, said Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based analyst. Iran’s foreign minister tweeted that a “regional dialogue forum is imperative”.

4. Is the region headed for war?

It’s hard to tell. Trump has insisted he isn’t looking for conflict although he said the possibility can’t be discounted.

After May’s attacks, he ordered the deployment of about 1,500 additional US troops and his national security adviser warned Iran and its proxies that they “risk a very strong response” if they attacked US interests in the region. The Trump administration, which has also deployed an aircraft carrier to the region, said it was evaluating the reports and will “continue to assess the situation”.

“It will take a few days to see if the US just decides to send more forces to the Strait of Hormuz or if it finds a way to retaliate,” said Ryan Bohl, an analyst at Stratfor. Few are expecting a full-scale invasion of Iran at this point though the US, which bases its Fifth Fleet in the Gulf island of Bahrain, may consider a more limited response.

The UAE government has stressed the importance of restraint. Its minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash struck a cautious tone in May, saying his country won’t be “baited” into crisis with Iran.

With Ladane Nasseri

Bloomberg