Caspian Region

Ship Attacks in the Gulf of Oman. What’s Happening and Why Now?

The Caspian Post
A handout image shows the Thalassa Desgagnes tanker, now called the Asphalt Princess, in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada June 19, 2016. Kevin D.Majewski/Handout via REUTERS

Rapidly rising tensions in the Middle East are once again being trumpeted by world headlines following attacks on at least two merchant ships in the Gulf of Oman/Arabian Sea in recent days.


On Tuesday (August 3, 2021), reports claimed that the Dubai-owned, Panama-flagged bitumen tanker, Asphalt Princess, was boarded by armed men in an apparent hijack attempt. Some said that the ship had been ordered to sail to Iran, leading certain observers to accuse the Islamic Republic of orchestrating the attack. The UK’s Times newspaper claimed that the would-be hijackers fled after the boat’s crew fought back, apparently aided by Omani and US warships. Some Iranian sources, however, describe the events as a “false flag operation.” One Iranian spokesman suggested that “conflicting reports” of events were suggestive of a campaign of “psychological warfare… to prepare the ground for new adventurism” – i.e., the pretext for further international pressure on Iran, whether political or even military.


This follows a more serious incident on July 29 in which two crew members died aboard the MV Mercer Street. The 2013 oil tanker, flagged as Liberian but operated by an Israeli-owned company, appears to have been attacked by a suicide drone. The UK, US and NATO have all concluded that it was “highly likely” that Iran was behind the attack. At the same time, Israel was unequivocal; the Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz even named Iran’s commander Saeed Ara Jani “directly responsible.” 


Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that “with absolute certainty: Iran carried out the attack against the [MV Mercer Street].”

The British chief of defence staff, General Nick Carter, suggested that the West needed to be “calling out Iran for its very reckless behaviour,” the US secretary of state Antony Blinkin threatened a “collective response,” and the Israeli PM said that the EU should now refuse to send a representative to the swearing-in of Iran’s newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi.


However, Iran considers the accusations “baseless,” the Iranian foreign affairs spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh calling them “provocative and false.” Khatibzadeh lamented that the US and UK “remained supportively silent about the terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage against Iranian trade vessels in the Red Sea and international waters, but have raised bogus allegations against Iran with political bias in a brazen manner.” He demanded that proof be demonstrated of any Iranian wrongdoing while underlining that any “adventurism” (i.e. attacks) against Iran would be met with a decisive and immediate response.


According to Tehran’s mission in London, the swirling rumours and finger-pointing is a game unfairly “misleading the public all around the world for diplomatic gain in New York.”

The language has become very bellicose on both sides, but to what extent is this just business as usual in the tragic shadow war that’s being played out between the West/Israel and Iran.


If you’re listening to pro-US/Israeli media, Iran is constantly harrying ‘enemy owned’ shipping with four attacks on Israel-linked ships in the last two years and the undeniable case of Iran having detained the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker in July 2019. This week’s events are worse, simply because two European crew members on the MV Mercer Street died.


If you look at things from the Iranian perspective, its enemies started the anti-shipping attacks with Israeli sabotage attacks on Iranian vessels beginning in early 2019, while the Stena Impero’s seizure was fair game as a tit-for-tat response. After all, British marines had dramatically intercepted the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya 1 tanker two weeks earlier and impounded it at Gibraltar.


From typical West/Israeli points of view, attacks on Iranian shipping are considered justified as part of sanctions regimes, whether against Iran itself or its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. From Iran’s point of view, such sanctions are themselves entirely unreasonable, not least those that resumed after US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the JPCOA. Laborious talks in Vienna to restore that nuclear deal have been ongoing since President Joe Biden came to power in Washington, but they’ve been stalled since June 20, pending the transition to a new presidential leadership team following general elections in Iran.


For radically anti-Iranian observers, Iran’s alleged shipping attacks show that Tehran can’t be trusted with a new version of the JPCOA. Though Israel itself has nuclear weapons, it remains implacably opposed to any Iranian nuclear ambitions, and much of the Israeli press paired reporting of the ship-attack events to a quote from the Israeli Defence Minister Danny Gantz claiming that Iran is “just ten weeks away” from having enough nuclear material for a bomb. For Iran, a possible motive of what it sees as false flag accusations might be an attempt to diminish its bargaining position in Vienna, or even to spark an international dispute that might cut off talks altogether. With Israel suggesting on August 5 that it is ready to make unilateral strikes against Iran, the stakes are dangerously high.