Tensions have risen sharply in the Gulf over the past week yet nearly as many questions have been raised as answered as to what exactly happened – and what could happen next.
On Sunday morning, reports emerged that four ships “were subjected to sabotage operations” off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
There is still very little information about what exactly happened. Saudi Arabia’s press agency reported two Saudi ships suffered “significant damage”. US military investigators said on Tuesday they had found large holes in each of the four ships believed to be caused by explosives, though no oil spill or casualties were reported.
Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash was careful not to place blame on any party in the attacks.
“I won’t speculate on the famous question of ‘who did it'”, he said, yet he continued, “there are serious issues and [foremost] among them is Iranian behaviour”.
On Wednesday, Gargash confirmed that the UAE, along with France and the US, is conducting an investigation into the attack, the results of which should be released in the coming days.
For its part, Iran condemned the attack as “worrisome and dreadful” and called for an investigation into it. More controversially, an Iranian parliamentary spokesman said Iran suspects “Israeli mischief” was responsible.
Drone attacks hit oil facilities
There was more clarity about Tuesday’s attack on the Saudi East-West pipeline. This attack by armed drones, videos of which surfaced on Thursday, spurred a temporary shutdown of the pipeline and a consequent rise in global oil prices, though Saudi Aramco confirmed that the pipeline had been restored as of Wednesday.
The Emirati Ministry for Foreign Affairs almost immediately condemned the attack, dubbing it “new proof of the Houthis’ hostile and terrorist tendencies”. Also on Tuesday, a Houthi-run television station claimed responsibility for having conducted a “big military operation” using drones against Saudi installations. A similar statement of responsibility has notably been absent regarding Sunday’s attacks.
Analysts have pointed out that both Fujairah, which sits just outside the Strait of Hormuz, and the attacked East-West pipeline, which pumps up to five million barrels of crude oil per day, bypass the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran controls.
There are some suggestions, then, that Iran is aiming to disrupt, or at least show it is capable of disrupting, the global oil markets through these attacks. Indeed, the attacks have not been catastrophic but have certainly demonstrated how vulnerable alternate energy transport paths are.
The timing of the attacks is a bit more puzzling.
Indeed, on Tuesday, the same day as the drone attacks, UN officials confirmed the completion of the first phase of redeploying Houthi forces away from Hodeidah and other ports, as part of a UN-brokered agreement, meaning that the Houthis would have jeopardised a potential settlement in order to disrupt Saudi oil transport for one day. Some experts have further questioned the technical ability of the Houthis to carry out a drone attack of that magnitude, particularly without being detected.
Nonetheless, the Houthis are being held accountable for the pipeline attack. On Thursday, the Joint Forces Command of the Saudi-UAE-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen conducted a series of air attacks on Houthi targets in Sanaa. A statement from the coalition confirmed its forces are “resolved to follow all terrorist elements across all of Yemen, and will be resolute to target all locations from which terrorist attacks are initiated”.
‘Head of the snake’
While official statements have tended towards caution, perhaps the most extreme response to these events so far was recorded in an opinion piece from the editorial board of Saudi state-run Arab News calling for military action against Iran. It reiterated former King Abdullah’s 2008 urging to the US to “cut off the head of the snake” using surgical attacks, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s remark that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the “new Hitler of the Middle East.”
Most controversially, the piece states: “We call for a decisive, punitive reaction to what happened so Iran knows that every single move they make will have consequences. The time has come for Iran not only to curb its nuclear weapon ambitions – again in the world’s interest – but also for the world to ensure that they do not have the means to support their terror networks across the region.”
It is uncertain whether the attacks on Yemen are considered sufficient punishment of Iran through their Houthi proxies (Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir dubbed the Houthis on Thursday “an indivisible part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps” on Twitter), or whether these events, and such opinion pieces, are meant to draw in American military power. Either way, it is a powerful signal of at least one strand of Saudi thinking in terms of an appropriate response to these developments.
Of course, tension between the US and Iran was already heightened after the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, its designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, and the imposition of new sanctions on Iran. Last week, the US sent the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, its strike group, and B-52 bombers to the Gulf.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made an unscheduled trip to Baghdad to assure Iraq of US support against potential Iranian aggression. Reuters revealed on Thursday through Iraqi sources that this visit was prompted by the positioning of rockets belonging to Shia militias near US military bases. Spokesmen for two Iran-backed paramilitary organisations in Iraq denied that they had plans to attack and instead said the discussion of Iranian threats was “psychological warfare” from the US.
The New York Times reported on White House plans to mobilise as many as 120,000 troops to the Gulf if Iran progresses with nuclear weapons or attacks American entities. President Trump denied this claim, calling it “fake news” and stating that: “Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Mike Pompeo on Tuesday similarly explained: “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran… We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion. We are looking for Iran to behave like a normal country.”
The Times on Thursday said the escalation in tensions was further fuelled by American intelligence photos of Iranian boats equipped with missiles in the Gulf, which raised alarm about attacks on American naval ships in the area. Additional reports have emerged that John Bolton, long hawkish on Iran, is fuelling the tensions. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif raised the possibility that American “hardliners” had orchestrated these incidents to justify a move against Iran, yet reiterated that “there won’t be any war” with the US.
Despite attempts to calm the rhetoric about a potential conflict, on Wednesday, the US State Department ordered all “non-emergency US government employees” to leave Iraq and German and Dutch armed forces suspended training operations in Iraq. The same day, American visitors to the UAE were warned “of heightened tensions in the region” and urged to be vigilant, with the UK’s Foreign Office advising caution for travellers to the UAE, as “there may also be attempts to target missiles and unmanned aerial systems (drones)”.
In terms of next steps, Al Jazeera reported Thursday that the Qatari foreign minister is holding talks in Tehran to attempt to defuse tensions. Absent a dialogue between Iran and the US and Iran and the UAE-Saudi Arabia, however, the atmosphere is likely to remain one of confusion and anxiety, in which rhetoric about ramping up conflict could spur further attacks and uncertainty.