Israel claims to have "proof" of Iranian involvement in oil tanker attack

Hormuz, a strategic area at the centre of tensions between Iran and Israel 

PHOTO/REUTERS - Tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz

The world's most heavily guarded 280 kilometres between Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates separate the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman. The well-known Strait of Hormuz is one of the world's most important and strategic sea passages through which one-fifth of the world's oil exports pass, making this area of great regional and global value. There is a reason for all this movement of oil and natural gas: several of the world's major oil producers are located around this strait, and in total the countries with waters in this area pump about a third of the world's barrels of oil. Obviously, all this oil has to be exported somewhere, and the natural outlet in the Persian Gulf is the Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz remains a source of major tensions. A key geographical feature, its physical characteristics leave those who must cross it in a position of extreme vulnerability. An average of 14 oil tankers per day leave for different markets, in addition to the military vessels from different countries that also ply these waters to preserve the strategic interests of their respective nations, many of which are at loggerheads with each other. An interruption could be strong enough to be used as a casus belli. Shutting it down would be an extreme decision, with serious economic consequences for Iran itself, and unpredictable political and military effects. But neither option can be dismissed out of hand in a context of growing tension with Israel. 

AFP PHOTO/Satellite image 2020 Maxar Technologies -  Estrecho de Ormuz

Tensions between Iran and Israel have increased exponentially. The incident, against a Japanese-owned tanker called Mercer Street, operated by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer's Zodiac Maritime, raised alarms among Israeli authorities. According to media reports, senior government and defence officials met urgently to discuss the matter, and are now trying to put Western countries on alert again to denounce the extent of alleged Iranian activities in the Middle East. Israel sees Tehran as its main enemy in the region and an existential threat. This incident appears to mark a new chapter in tensions between Israel and the Islamic Republic, following other aggressions and sabotage against ships in the Gulf over the past two years, a dynamic that has intensified in recent months. 

The US government said it was "certain" that Iran was responsible for the attack on the tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two people, and said it would issue an "appropriate response" shortly. In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that after analysing the available information, the US "is certain that Iran perpetrated the attack" and is working with its partners to "consider next steps" and determine the "appropriate response". "There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other bellicose behaviour. In a statement, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was working with allies internationally to agree "a concerted response to this unacceptable attack". "UK assessments have concluded that it is highly likely that Iran attacked the MV 'Mercer Street' in international waters near Oman on 29 July, using one or more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)," he said. Raab stressed that "Iran must stop these kinds of attacks and ships must be able to sail freely under international law". "We believe this was a deliberate, targeted attack in clear violation of international law by Iran," he added.

AFP/ATTA KENARE  -   Soldados iraníes en el estrecho de Ormuz

However, it is still unclear whether the attack, which took place on Thursday night, is piracy, as the operator initially suspected, or something else, as maritime security firm Dryad Global said it may have been carried out with a drone and be similar to previous attacks by Iran. The Iranian authorities have, however, disassociated themselves from the attack, but have pointed out that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis and its nuclear programme is through the cessation of Washington's sanctions, or at least their severe effects. For its part, the Iranian government denies the Israeli accusations, now backed by the UK and the US. In his weekly press conference, Tehran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Said Khatibzade called Tel Aviv's accusations "baseless" and stressed that "it is not the first time that the occupying regime in Quds (Jerusalem) has attributed such accusations to the Islamic Republic".

Indeed, this has been a scenario that Iran has used on several occasions to destabilise the area with attacks on cargo ships that occurred recently after the political and economic sanctions imposed by the United States on the Persian state following the US exit in 2018 from the nuclear pact signed with Iran in 2015, which limited Iran's atomic programme, especially in terms of weapons. The Trump Administration denounced breaches of the terms of the agreement by the Islamic Republic and imposed sanctions on the Iranian country, including those related to trade in crude oil, the main source of financing for the Persian nation. 

AFP/AFP - Mapa del Golfo localizando el Estrecho de Ormuz, los puertos de la isla de Kharg y Jask y el nuevo oleoducto de Goreh, en Irán

On 23 July, Iran announced the opening of its first oil terminal in the Gulf of Oman, a move that will allow the Persian country to avoid using the Strait of Hormuz sea route, which has been a source of regional tension for decades. The new terminal is located near the port of Jask in the Gulf of Oman, just south of the Strait of Hormuz, allowing ships bound for the Arabian Sea to bypass the narrow route. Iran is thus seeking to circumvent international sanctions on oil exports and avoid the Strait of Hormuz, which has seen multiple clashes between the Islamic Republic and the United States, which has several warships in the area. Iran is also seeking to diversify its oil exports to countries such as China and India, as this new route offers more direct access.

An exchange of oil tankers, an end to US sanctions on Iran and the formation of a European naval mission are some of the proposals for dealing with the current crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, but they all present difficulties or involve risks. The events unfolding in the Strait of Hormuz are extremely serious because they threaten the pillars of the world economy, which is based on global maritime trade, which in turn depends on maintaining freedom of the seas. And in so doing, they even endanger peace in the area.