There are heightened fears over the risk of conflict erupting in the Middle East following the attack on two crude tankers in the Gulf of Oman this morning. The US Navy’s fifth fleet, which received distress calls near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, sailed to assist the tankers and the crew members who were all evacuated.
The attack comes only a month after four tankers were attacked in the same stretch of water, which with some 30 per cent of global seaborne crude passing through it, has a major chokehold on the global economy.
The latest incident came as the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, held talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in an effort to find a basis for discussions between the US and Iran.
Abe expressed Japan’s intention to continue buying oil from Iran and said that “armed conflict needs to be prevented at all costs. Peace and stability in the Middle East is indispensable not only for this region but for global prosperity. No one is hoping for war.”
Following this morning’s strike Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif noted that the attack had coincided with Abe’s meeting with Ali Khamenei and suggested that there may be a wider conspiracy to sabotage the meeting. “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” he said on Twitter.
Zarif went on to insist that Iran’s proposal for talks between regional powers to reduce the tensions was “imperative”.
The US has blamed Iran for all the attacks. Last month National Security Advisor John Bolton said that Tehran was “certainly” responsible. The UAE also pointed the finger at Tehran. An inquiry by the Abu Dhabi found that the “sophisticated” mines used to carry out the attack was directed by state-like actors, but stopped short of blaming Iran.
Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack, which marks a high in the level of tension between Tehran and its neighbours. The US has insisted on putting “maximum economic pressure” on Iran in an attempt to force Tehran to reopen talks about the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US unilaterally pulled out of last year against the advice of its allies in Europe.
London-based shipbroker commenting on the economic hit was quoted by the Financial Times saying: “This is very alarming, after the last incident, in particular, you can see that it is more expensive to insure both cargo and vessels travelling in the region. It is likely this will be even more now.”
Speaking about the likely culprit, Cailin Birch at the Economist Intelligence Unit told the FT: “It remains unclear who the actors are behind the recent spate of tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman. Iranian authorities will continue to deny responsibility, either directly or indirectly through proxies. Given the lack of clear information, there is a risk that the US government will interpret the recent attacks as a potential sign of Iranian aggression in the region.”