June 17, 2019

IntelBrief: Tanker Blasts in the Gulf of Oman Escalate Tensions Between U.S. and Iran

An oil tanker is on fire in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the U.S. Navy rushed to assist amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. (AP Photo/ISNA).
  • On June 13, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were damaged by apparent sabotage, as explosions ripped through the side of the ships.
  • The U.S. has publicly blamed Iran for the attacks, as well as for similar incidents in May off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
  • American allies have offered cautious responses, reluctant to take Washington at its word, even as it appears likely that Iran is the culprit.
  • The Iraq war debacle and the Trump administration’s numerous false statements have resulted in a significant lack of credibility for claims made by the U.S.


On June 13, 2019, the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian tanker Front Altair were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, rocked by explosions that blew holes into the sides of both ships. The tanker crews were subsequently evacuated. The incidents have placed not just the region, but the entire world on high alert. In May, several other tankers were similarly attacked and damaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), though the damage in these latest attacks appears to be more substantial. The U.S. maintains a ubiquitous naval presence throughout the region, which includes sophisticated surveillance capabilities. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the U.S. fingered Iran as the culprit and released a video showing a small boat craft on the side of one of the tankers. U.S. officials state that the footage contained an Iranian crew removing an unexploded 'limpet’ mine from the ship’s hull. The Iranians allegedly fired a missile at a U.S. drone just prior to the attack on the tankers. 

It is unclear what the repercussions of these latest attacks will be, particularly in terms of military tensions with Iran. The attacks did have the effect of rattling the global energy market and leading to a spike in world oil prices. What is increasingly clear is that the U.S. has a serious credibility problem with even its closest allies and partners. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, have stated that it is quite likely Iran is behind the string of attacks on oil tankers, although most states have proceeded with extreme caution to assign definitive blame. Part of the reluctance stems from previous American accusations of malfeasance in the Middle East, chief among them the claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction and collaborating with elements of al-Qaeda. The entire narrative that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq was built on false claims, leading other countries to become and remain suspicious of U.S. intentions, particularly given the ongoing saber-rattling between Washington and Tehran over the past year. 

Officially, Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that 'the level of expertise needed to execute the operation' is yet another piece of evidence pointing to Iranian involvement. Even without knowing all the facts, there now appears to be a serious security issue in the Gulf of Oman, the body of water located just beyond the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran. This is a major transit area for energy resources, with nearly one-third of maritime-based or seaborne shipments of global oil supplies moving through this waterway. The attacks are also reminiscent of the so-called tanker wars of the 1980s, which occurred during the disastrous war between Iran and Iraq that was waged from 1980 to 1988, causing many casualties and impacting world oil markets. 

Even if Iran is ultimately proven to be the aggressor in this incident, there is no consensus on how to respond. The Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has led to a chasm between the U.S. and Europe on one of the most important policy issues facing the world today. The U.S. is open about its continued attempts to pressure Iran to change its actions in the region; Secretary of State Pompeo called it a 'maximum pressure campaign,’ which has included not just the withdrawal from the nuclear deal but also biting sanctions and a recent expansion of U.S. military posture throughout the Persian Gulf. In comments he made about the recent tanker attacks, Pompeo suggested that U.S. efforts against Iran were a possible reason behind the attacks. In his view, that means that the administration’s strategy is working, while in Europe and elsewhere, it is perhaps proof that the pressure is leading Iran to respond with provocative, dangerous actions. The situation is so severe that the U.N. Security Council immediately called for consultations to prevent a further escalation, hoping to head off a broader conflagration in one of the world’s most volatile and unstable regions.


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