There is growing geopolitical tension in the Gulf as observers anticipate an escalating “shadow war” — so described in the British Telegraph — between Iran and Israel. They refer to attacks on tankers and vessels in the region allegedly by the two countries, though neither acknowledged responsibility for any of them. Israel and its Western allies have indeed spoken of retaliation against Iran in relation to the latest incident, which occurred last month. At the end of last week, the US army’s Central Command announced the results of its forensic investigation into the previous week’s fatal drone attack on an Israeli-owned tanker, Mercer Street, off the Omani coast, which left two dead.
The tests concluded that the attack was carried out by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) produced in Iran. The tanker, managed by the London-based Zodiac Maritime Company owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer, was sailing past the Omani island of Masirah when attacked. A British security guard and the ship’s Romanian captain lost their lives. Israel, the UK and Romania instantly accused Iran of the attack. Iran denied the accusation. After interviewing the survivors and studying the explosive residue, the American investigators concluded that the ship was targeted by three drones.
“The first two, launched at the ship on the evening of Thursday 29 July, missed their target. But the third drone launched early on Friday 30 July and loaded with a military grade explosive, hit the pilot house and exploded, killing the two men and leaving a 2-metre diameter hole”.
They recovered part of the drone’s wing and after further testing concluded that the drone was produced in Iran. On Friday, a joint statement issued by all the G7 nations condemned Iran’s actions, suggesting that they threatened peace and stability. Iran disputed the statement. Though Israel threatened to attack Iran in retaliation, American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said there would be a collective response to the incident if it was proved that Iran was behind it.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in an undeclared war for some time now. Israel is widely believed to be behind a series of acts of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear programme, including the assassination of key scientists. It has also attacked Iranian ships suspected of carrying oil to Syria. At the same time Iran has been targeting Israeli-linked shipping with limpet mines, something for which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has trained intensively.
Days after the attack on the Israeli tanker, there was a second attack with armed men briefly seizing control of another merchant tanker, the MV Asphalt Princess, before letting it go on its way. Again, some reports accuse the IRGC of the incident while Iran denies any involvement.
An analysis by The Sunday Telegraph this week found that the attacks on ships in the region “have steadily risen year-on-year since 2019, amid warnings that both countries are approaching the brink of open war”. Last year, Iranian ships were attacked at least six times. “And incidents have soared since February this year, when Israel accused the tanker Emerald of carrying out an ‘eco terrorist attack’ by deliberately and illegally spilling oil that drenched 100 miles of Israeli beaches in thick tar.”
The Iranian Ambassador to the UK Mohsen Baharvand said last week that there have been 11 Israeli attacks on Iranian cargo vessels this year. Israeli sabotage is also suspected of sinking the Kharg, Iran’s biggest navy ship, in June.
The paper said that “the clandestine war in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean is just one front in a wider conflict being waged with drones, spies, and cyber divisions on both sides … Sources familiar with Israel’s military strategy say it has adopted an asymmetrical approach where an Iranian strike on a ship may be met with a cyber-attack on its infrastructure. In May 2020, a cyber attack at the Iranian port of Shahid Rajaee plunged shipping lanes into chaos.”
Some are rushing to make an analogy with the famous Tanker War in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. But Andrew Hammond of Oxford University in the UK dismisses that analogy. He told Al-Ahram Weekly, “It’s very unlikely this situation will lead to a tanker war like that of the 1980s. Oil markets have not reacted heavily to the situation and prices are now under pressure over the rise of the [coronavirus] Delta variant around the world.”
A podcast this week by analysts from S&P Global Platts, the energy analysis subsidiary of the leading rating organisation, came to the same conclusion. Platts senior editor Eklavya Gupte said of the incident, “It shows that the tensions between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the wider Middle East are definitely growing … We have not seen the big impact yet on oil price; in fact the price has fallen slightly due to concern over Delta variant spread. More cities in China witnessed lockdown so we will see a decrease in oil demand there.” But he did not rule out an impact later: “The more these incidents increase, the more it will add to geopolitical risk and we will see its impact in the second half of 2021. With insurance premiums increasing, that might affect the cost of oil. But as there is no disruption in oil supply from major producers, the impact is yet to be seen”.
Increased attacks on shipping outside the Gulf and into the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean complicates the Arabian Gulf countries’ efforts to keep maritime trade going smoothly. Not only for the 188 million barrel per day (bpd) of oil that go through the Strait of Hormuz, but for other trade as well. For example, the Dubai port of Jebel Ali and its free zone, which is the main regional hub for re-export, relies heavily on these maritime routes.
As Iran threatened to close the strait in case of attack by the US or Israel, Gulf countries developed alternative routes for their energy exports and other trade to go beyond Hormuz, such as through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Alternatives to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz include the East and West pipeline carrying Saudi oil from the eastern region to the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea, with a basic capacity of five million bpd and the Habshan–Fujairah oil pipeline with a basic capacity of 1.8 million bpd. This is also supplemented by building Saudi refineries and export ports on the Red Sea. In addition to this, Omani ports like Sohar and Doqm have developed on the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Gulf countries also worked on expanding the road and railway network to increase land freight.
The new developments beyond Hormuz threaten such efforts. As Andrew Hammond noted, “there has been in fact a state of war, a hybrid war, going on in the Middle East since Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018. It’s a managed war between Israel and Iran involving cyber attacks, drones, proxies, and several countries. The best chance of reducing tensions is for the US to make a new agreement with Iran.”
Iranian-American talks on the nuclear deal are due to resume in Vienna early next month. That is why Washington might be incentivised to neutralise any escalations with Tehran. Even if the Israelis are seeking war, the Americans might restrain them. And this makes the likelihood of a full-fledged tanker war even lower.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly