Uh oh: Two oil tankers hit by shells in Gulf of Oman, one adrift

“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” said Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, and the US couldn’t agree more. Two oil tankers sailing through the Gulf of Oman got hit by shells or torpedoes earlier this morning, leaving one adrift and ablaze. It comes a month after four tankers in the area were sabotaged in port, and the US is already pointing the finger at Iran:

Two oil tankers came under attack on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, forcing their crews to abandon ship and setting at least one vessel ablaze, a month after four tankers were damaged in the same waterway, a vital thoroughfare for much of the world’s oil products.

The attacks escalated tensions in an already tense region, where Iran has long been at odds with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and they are backing opposite sides in the civil war in Yemen. Relations between the United States — allied with the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia — and Iran have also worsened. …

The Norwegian newspaper VG quoted a Frontline spokesman as saying that its ship was on fire, and that all 23 crew members had been rescued. Maritime tracking websites say the Front Altair, registered in the Marshall Islands, had left the Emirati port of Ruwais, headed to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan.

The other tanker, the Panamanian-flagged Kokuka Courageous, operated by the Japanese company Kokuka Sangyo, was carrying methanol, and Iranian state media reported that it too was on fire. It was reportedly headed from the Saudi port of Al Jubail to Singapore. The ship’s owner, Bernhard Shulte GmbH & Co KG, said in a statement that all 21 crew members had abandoned ship after damage to the hull on the starboard side, and were quickly rescued from a lifeboat by a nearby vessel.

If the Iranians conducted the attack, the timing would be bizarre. Japan’s prime minister Abe Shinzo had just arrived in Iran for the first such visit since the 1979 revolution as a way to cool tensions in the area. Instead, Abe might get a ringside seat at the wildfire:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in the Iranian capital Thursday on a high-stakes visit to help calm hostilities in the Persian Gulf region. Japan is a key U.S. ally but enjoys long-standing diplomatic and cultural ties with Iran.

Abe’s visit was widely billed as a positive step toward potentially opening talks between Iran and the United States after President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year. …

Abe met Thursday with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and told reporters that Khamenei had conveyed his “belief in peace.”

“It is a major step forward toward securing peace and stability in this region,” Abe told reporters in Tehran, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency.

Apparently not. That was more than a bit hyperbolic anyway, considering that Iran still has proxies fighting hot wars in Syria and Yemen, and their Hezbollah armies ready to launch another one against Israel at any time. If anything’s been proven in the forty years since Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution, it’s that the mullahs believe in war, and that it’s their guiding light on foreign policy.

The Iranians, of course, will point to the timing and say that they would never have attacked a Japanese tanker while conducting a sensitive diplomatic mission in Tehran. That is curious, because if they did, it’s the kind of diplomatic insult that would last a generation — against a country with which the Iranians do some significant business. They can’t afford to anger Japan, especially not with their economy in the tank already under US-imposed sanctions.

Thus we have Zarif’s statement about how suspicious this attack appears. The US would certainly benefit from such an idiotic move by the Iranians, so they will argue that we shelled the tankers to make it look like the Iranians did it. Of course, we could equally argue (in the absence of forensic evidence) that the Iranians did it so that they could blame it on the US. It’s one of those eight-dimensional-chess arguments that more or less devolve into a I’m-rubber-you’re-glue dynamic in the end.

Could someone else have done this, though? Perhaps an Iranian proxy who got out of control (or acted under orders?), or a Saudi operation that intends to provoke a final showdown with Tehran’s mullahs? Maybe, but the latter seems especially unlikely, as this flare-up near the Straits of Hormuz could severely impact Saudi Arabia’s ability to ship its own oil. With both the US and Iranian navies heavily patrolling the waters in the Gulf of Oman, it seems pretty unlikely that a third party would have gotten close enough to launch these attacks without getting noticed by one or both fleets.

We’ll have to wait for more evidence to build the case against the attacker. In the meantime, let’s remember that the Iranian navy has been conducting provocations in this area for years, including the capture and humiliation of US Navy sailors not all that long ago. This attack might be extreme, but it’s in character for one side of this conflict.