Yesterday morning, two oil tankers were forced to evacuate their crews in the Gulf of Oman area after incidents that do not appear to have left anyone injured or dead. Less than a month ago, on May 12, four ships sailing in the same area were damaged in incidents, the nature of which has still not been made clear. Oil tanker traffic is heavy in this maritime region of the Middle East; about 18 million barrels of crude oil, from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and other large oil exporters are shipped though the area daily.
As happened in May, the United States did not wait for proof or for all of the available information before publicly claiming that Iran was responsible for the alleged attacks. In a statement not devoid of inconsistency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that in his country’s view, the Islamic Republic is responsible for the attacks, but Washington hopes Tehran will return to the negotiating table.
Faced with what appears to be an attempt to increase the tension afflicting the region, it is necessary to remember that maritime incidents form part of the repertoire with which U.S. intelligence and armed forces have historically forced conflicts with countries that have no intention whatsoever of getting involved in military operations against the superpower. One of the two most notable incidents of this type is the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898 in the port of Havana, which provided the pretext for declaring the war on Spain in which the United States seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The other is the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the United States escalated the violence of its intervention in Vietnam to previously unthinkable extremes. It is important to point out that while the Maine episode officially remains an unexplained mishap, the files of the United States itself show that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a false flag operation to implicate North Vietnam.
To this it must be added that the entire Persian Gulf region is infested with U.S. military bases and installations. This makes it less credible that such incidents could take place outside the direct control and knowledge of the United States. To mention only the most important ones, the U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, while Qatar is home to the Joint Air Operations Center, Washington’s largest air base in the Middle East.
Last but not least, it is not possible to ignore the fact that the alleged incidents have occurred in a year in which Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord entered into with Iran by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China. And this was all playing out against the background of Trump’s perpetual search for external enemies, to divert attention away from the problems his administration is facing. In view of the context and the background, in short, the question has to be raised whether the maritime mishaps discussed above are really the consequence of an Iranian attack or of U.S. sabotage. And we would hope that the superpower’s allies would have that question in mind, with the aim of avoiding an unwanted escalation that would put the already fragile regional security at risk.