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Sabotage and information warfare in the Gulf of Oman

  • Giorgio Cafiero
  • 13 May 2019

Security crises in the Persian Gulf will become increasingly high-stakes as the lack of communication between Iran and the US and its allies can trigger misinformation, perceived threats and potentially military confrontation.

General view of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. ( Reuters )

On May 12, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stated that “sabotage operations” targeted four commercial vessels off the coast of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The next day Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister announced that two these oil tankers were Saudi, one of which was en route to the port of Ras Tanura. These explosions off the UAE’s east coast of Fujairah did not result in any casualties, injuries, or oil spills, according to Saudi and Emirati officials.

Authorities in the UAE did not explicitly accuse Iran or any other actor of involvement. Within the context of the US and its close Arab allies—including the Emirates and Saudi Arabia—increasing their threats and waging financial warfare against Tehran, such security crises near the Strait of Hormuz, where one-fifth of the world’s oil transits, has become increasingly dangerous as the room grows for miscalculation.

In response to this act of sabotage of a major tanker refuelling hub, the head of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee tweeted that the incident illustrated the extent to which the southern Persian Gulf’s security has recently become fragile.

Indeed, since the beginning of last month, tensions between Washington and Tehran have ratcheted up significantly. The presence of a US warship in the Bab al Mandab, the arrival of B-52H Stratofortress bombers at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, new economic sanctions on Iran, the US embassy in Iraq issuing a warning, and Washington’s terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have collectively contributed to this extremely tense situation.   

Alarmingly, the possibility is higher now than ever before that hostility in US-Iran relations will escalate into a military confrontation. Such dangerous dynamics open the door for different actors, including the US president’s national security advisor John Bolton, to capitalise on specific incidents such as these tanker explosions in the Gulf of Oman to create a pretext for military action against the Islamic Republic – perhaps under the guise of keeping global shipping lanes open or stopping Iranian-orchestrated acts of sabotage in the region.

As the White House intensifies its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, Iranian officials are weighing their options too with the question of whether Iran would ever close the Strait of Hormuz. If (emphasis on if) Iran had a role in this act of sabotage, it could have possibly signalled Tehran’s determination to make Arab states that back the US administration’s anti-Iran policies pay a price and remind the UAE that Iran and its proxies are capable of targeting them.

 Media warfare

Regarding this specific international security incident off the UAE’s east coast, there are more questions than answers. Importantly, it is not clear where those behind these blasts came from and obtaining that information is key to the investigation.

There are many questions about reports published by various Iranian and Russian media outlets which exaggerated the situation. Only two years after the hacking of Qatar News Agency that later escalated into the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, it is undeniable that the weaponisation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is a part of regional and global geopolitics with numerous states using timely misinformation to advance their interests.

Misinformation amid a war of narratives in the region also increases the risk of threat (mis)perceptions triggering a military confrontation. Much confusion surrounded yesterday’s episode with certain reports citing Lebanese sources claiming that there were explosions in the Emirati port which officials in Fujairah quickly denied. The UAE foreign ministry also dismissed as “baseless and unfounded” reports about US and French warplanes flying over Fujairah during the time of these tanker blasts.

The White House’s move away from diplomacy

Even during Obama’s presidency when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—more commonly known as the Iranian nuclear deal—was implemented there was much tension in Washington’s relationship with the Islamic Republic. Unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Israel/Palestine kept the US and Iran as opposing stakeholders in most of the Arab world’s hotspots notwithstanding the nuclear agreement’s passage—a watershed in the history of global diplomacy.

But when it came to these unresolved conflicts, as well as one episode in early 2016 involving ten US sailors who were detained after drifting into Iranian waters while on the way from Kuwait to Bahrain, the JCPOA provided at minimum a foundation for US officials to reach out to their counterparts in Tehran and advance their interests through the growth of diplomatic channels. In that specific case of the US sailors, then-Secretary of State John Kerry was able to call Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and secure their release.

But imagining such an outcome to a similar scenario at this point is difficult. Given the downward trajectory of US-Iran relations, there’s less margin for error when it comes to security crises in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman where tensions are already sky high.

The White House’s all-sticks-and-no-carrots approach to Iran one year after the US pulled out of the JCPOA has left Washington without that diplomatic leverage. Now with the JCPOA being essentially dead, it will be harder for US officials to de-escalate tensions during times of confusion such as this recent act of sabotage off the coast of an extremely close US ally.

It’s wise to keep in mind that when communication stops, trouble tends to start. Although much uncertainty and confusion surround the recent sabotage operations targeting vessels in the Gulf of Oman, what is clear is that Bolton is set on taking advantage of the trouble that can easily result from this increasingly tense environment.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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