Tanker attacks raise risk of confrontation

Published in MEED, 24 June 2019

Regional divisions have been growing ever wider in recent weeks, with a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and high-profile strikes by Houthi rebels deep inside Saudi territory. Taken together, they have significantly increased tensions between Iran on the one hand and the US and its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other.

These tensions intensified on 20 June, when Iran shot down a US military surveillance drone.

US officials led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were quick to blame Iran for the 13 June attacks on two oil tankers, the Kokuka Courageous and Front Altair, saying the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) had placed explosive charges on the outside of the vessels.

Washington released video footage to back up its allegations, saying it showed an IRGC patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of the Kokuka Courageous.

The UK broadly accepted the US analysis, but other countries, such as Germany and Japan, have been more reluctant, calling for more proof while trying to avoid a rush to another possible war. Tehran itself has strenuously denied any involvement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting that “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired”.

The consensus among independent observers contacted by MEED is that the IRGC carried out the assaults on the tankers with the aim of undermining international mediation efforts.

“This is a spoiling move that is an attack on mediation efforts, a deterrent against further military action and an act of defiance,” says Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies, King’s College London.

The assault on the two tankers followed a similar incident on 12 May, when four ships were attacked in waters off the coast of Fujairah. Over the same period, there have been several attacks on Saudi territory by Yemen’s Houthi rebels – including a drone attack on oil pumping stations on the East-West pipeline on 14 May and a strike on Abha International airport in the early hours of 12 June that injured 26 people.

Riyadh has condemned those incidents as acts of terrorism. Given Iran’s links to the Houthi rebels – which are not as strong as some suggest, but are real nonetheless – Riyadh and Washington both took the opportunity to heap more blame on Tehran.

Other Gulf powers have been scrambling to react, but deep-seated divisions among GCC members and the close economic and political ties that Iran has forged with other Arab governments have made that difficult. Following the attacks in mid-May, Saudi Arabia called a trio of high-level intergovernmental meetings in Mecca.

They were meant to set the scene for a unified Arab push against Iran. One of the meetings – the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – had been in the diary for some time, but Riyadh added two other summits at short notice: one for GCC members and another for Arab leaders more generally.

However, the effort by King Salman largely failed, with some Gulf countries objecting to the gatherings’ concluding statements, which were strongly critical of Iran. Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, for example, told a press conference soon afterwards, “Baghdad does not want to be biased towards one party at the expense of another.”

The outlook is a difficult one, with little sign of any meaningful mediation efforts under way. Japanese efforts have tailed off since the June tanker attacks, which happened while its prime minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for talks.

Countries including Germany, Iraq and Oman have also made efforts to encourage the US and Iran to step back from the brink, but there appears to be little appetite in either Washington or Tehran for meaningful talks at this stage.

“At this point, no Arab country can effectively mediate,” says senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics, Cinzia Bianco. “[US President Donald] Trump has no confidence in Oman or Iraq. Nor do Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Trump does not like the Europeans either. I do not see much chance [of talks] anyway, given the dominant position in Tehran is that negotiating with the US is a waste of time and source of embarrassment.”

A further complicating factor for the US and its allies that are trying to create a united front against Tehran is the fact that the GCC itself remains so divided.

That was made clear in the aftermath of the Mecca summits when Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said the communiques from the GCC and Arab leaders’ summits were not in line with Doha’s position.

This drew rebukes from Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, his UAE counterpart Anwar Gargash and Bahraini Foreign Affairs Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa – underlining the lack of unity within the GCC some two years after the boycott of Qatar began.

There had been hopes for a breakthrough in the GCC crisis ahead of the Mecca summits, after King Salman bin Abdelaziz al-Saud extended an invite to Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The latter did not take up the invitation himself, sending Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani instead.

At the gatherings, Sheikh Abdullah was seen shaking hands with both King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly at the bidding of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. But that did not herald a healing of the rift.

Qatar finds itself in an interesting position, given its close links to both Washington, with its hosting of the US Air Force’s huge Al-Udeid base, and Iran. Doha has forged closer ties with Tehran since the boycott was imposed by its neighbours in June 2017.

This could provide Qatar with the ability to act as a trusted mediator and thus lessen tensions, but it could also force Doha into an uncomfortable choice, particularly if the Trump administration forces it to pick sides.

As the standoff continues, there are other diplomatic consequences, with the likely collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

On 17 June, Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Tehran was set to break through the limits on the amount of enriched uranium it can hold under the deal.

When Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the nuclear deal in May last year, his administration predicted Tehran would soon want to come back to the table to negotiate something even more comprehensive. That has not transpired and in fact regional stability is now more fragile than it has been for many years, but others in the region have been making similar calculations.

“The UAE has convinced Saudi Arabia that, if pressured properly, Iran will retreat and sit at the negotiating table from a position of weakness,” says Bianco. “They want a weak Iran, retreating within its borders as much as possible.”

Unfortunately for policy planners in the GCC and Washington, the evidence of recent events is that those calculations appear ill-founded.