Gulf of Oman tanker attacks: Everything you need to know
The apparent attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday represents a dramatic escalation in regional and international tensions. Coming just one month and one day after an attack on four other oil tankers in the same area, oil prices have spiked upward in fear of what might happen next.
What’s going on here? Blame Iran.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudis might want a United States showdown with Iran but they would not risk jeopardizing the U.S. relationship by conducting a false flag attack. Moreover, the damage to the two tankers in this latest incident is suggestive of a torpedo attack: video shows at least one of the tankers on fire with waterline damage amidships. Iran has an array of means for such an attack, including attack submarines of various sizes, disguised fishing and passenger boats, and military fast boats.
Regardless, this attack fits comfortably with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps penchant for thinly deniable action. Suffering deep financial losses due to escalating U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps wants to pressure the international community into restraining the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy. Iran will hope that this attack is sufficiently calibrated to avoid clear evidence of its culpability and thus avoid U.S. retaliation. In that, it is designed as a halfway measure between doing nothing and inviting U.S. retaliation by overtly attempting to shut down the Strait of Hormuz.
But Iran’s escalation should not be seen solely through the prism of this attack. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made veiled but apparent threats of Iranian resistance to the Trump administration’s pressure. And an Iranian-enabled missile attack on Saudi Arabia this week illustrates that the Revolutionary Guards is escalating. This sits squarely within Iran’s theocratic penchant for resistance against great odds (look up the Battle of Karbala).
The question is how the U.S. and its allies should respond.
The measure of this aggression will require some kind of significant response. Iran is now actively disrupting international oil markets and free passage of an arterial trade route. That cannot stand. But rightly neither is there much appetite in the U.S. or the region for a war.
I suspect what we will now see is a significantly increased naval presence by the U.S. and its allies to protect transit routes. Iranian forces and fishing vessels (due to the threat of disguised attacks) will likely be warned to keep distance from other vessels or face being sunk. We should expect them to test that warning, and for allied vessels to fire on them in response. Hopefully they will get the message and go back to port.
In terms of naval air-power, the U.S. currently has only an amphibious ready group in the area, so expect one of the carriers now in the Atlantic to be redeployed back to the Gulf.