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War Drums beating in the Arabian Sea

It might be a “limited” war, or understandably, it may be conducted as a blitzkrieg, but whatever the strategy, it must be influential and thunderous for its parties to achieve their goals of waging it, an unlikely scenario given the inability to control the adverse consequences of this imminent operation in the Arabian Sea adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, north of the Indian Ocean. 

Precursors and preparations for this operation took place in the Arabian Sea with a recent attack on the Israeli-linked M/T Mercer Street oil tanker managed by Zodiac Maritime and owned by the Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The attack, which Iran was blamed for, resulted in the deaths of two onboard personnel, a Romanian and a British. Immediately following the attack, the US military naval units came to the aid of the tanker attacked by a one-way drone, a term used to describe unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that carry highly explosive payload and attack a predetermined target to destroy it or cause it the maximum damage by bombing it, blowing up the entire body of the drone during its collision with the target.

The US military, the naval forces of which were the first to rush to the scene of the accident in response to a distress call from the tanker, spoke of preliminary evidence that confirms the attack was carried out by an AUV, but made no further disclosure of any details, leaving it to the State Department. Later on, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated that the available information point to Iran’s involvement in the attack.

In parallel, according to Dryad Global, a maritime security and risk assessment company, the Arabian Sea has been witnessing an exchange of attacks between Iran and Israel. 

Throughout the past few months, Israel has been accusing Iran and its agents of orchestrating the attacks on Israeli vessels, particularly in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Correspondingly, there have been several precedents in which Iran accused Israel of standing behind several military operations against its interests and forces, the most recent of which has been the arson attack on the MV Iran Shahr-E-Kord in March in the Mediterranean, where Iran stated then that all realities suggested Tel Aviv was behind the attack.  

The present scenario is but one manifestation of an already existing conflict which Israel and Iran have been involved in for years. This explains why Iran’s denial of the Israeli claims of its involvement in the recent Mercer Street attack attracted no attention. What matters here is looking at the significance of Israel’s build-up of a unified response with the US and the UK, on the grounds that Iran’s assault has crossed the red lines by threatening the freedom of international maritime navigation and security and making use of a qualitative weapon that caused injuries and unprecedented losses with potentiality for future use.  

While the Israel-Iran naval incidents have been frequent, both parties kept them under control with limited losses, albeit not without timely messages. The seriousness of the recent assault and inflicting causalities in broad day light reveal a novel approach of the new Iranian administration in facing its Israeli counterpart, particularly given Iran’s dissatisfaction over the past year in relation to Israel’s capabilities that allow it to penetrate Syrian lands and carry out military operations in Syria and against Iran’s nuclear facilities and, recently, its maritime interests.

Iran believes the time has come to adopt a new approach, baring the teeth of a new administration that seeks addressing the successive failures in dealing with security threats. That’s why the first information leak following this last attack came from semi-official media, Al-Alam News Network, seemingly intended as a reminder that the attack comes in “response” to   the Israeli attack on Dabaa airport in Syria, which primarily targeted Iran forces that were hit hard.

Only five days following the Mercer Street attack and in the same theatre of operations, news agencies released news reported by Lloyd’s List Intelligence agency – a platform that provides around-the-clock news on the maritime transport sector – that gunmen hijacked a Panama-flagged ship in the Gulf of Oman and took it by force to Iran. This happened on Tuesday evening and continued throughout the night as has been confirmed by a number of reserved reports, quoting mostly from electronic monitors, that more than nine armed men boarded the Asphalt Princess vessel as it was approaching the entrance to Strait of Hormuz, specifically within the maritime domain of Fujairah. According to these reports, the attack has been described as a “potential hijack”. On Wednesday afternoon, it was officially announced, without giving further details, that the vessel was released and the attack ended.

Although the accident has been marred by ambiguity so far, particularly with regards to who backs those gunmen and who responded rapidly and decisively to end the operation as such, the accident coincided with another, more dangerous one that is still being in question and its details haven’t been unfolded, pertaining to the “loss of control” of four tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the first abduction site where the tankers were sailing in the territorial waters of Oman and a marine guard plane of the Omani Air Force was seen flying over the sea. The news was reported by Flightradar24 website around the same time the accident was announced.

Significantly, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign affairs was quick to respond to the “loss of control” incident, describing it as an “endeavor to create a negative hostile atmosphere against Iran.”

International investigation bodies are currently looking into the accident which tentative indicators deem more pernicious as it goes beyond just hijacking. If confirmed that a simultaneous cyber-attack against these tankers, which happened to exist in the same area, causing them to fall under the same attack that was shortly interrupted not allowing for detecting the symptoms that appeared on the navigation data and equipment, would give rise to the assumption that the cyber-attack will take the conflict to a whole new level.

It took these incidents less than a week to occur in an area with tensions boiling beneath the surface, making it the most volatile worldwide, with maritime transport, international navigation lanes, and securing passages being its major challenges. 

There has been a stream of headlines from the US, the UK, and Israel in what appears to be a gigantic web to catch Iran to the point that some expect an imminent escalation. 

This article was originally published in Ad-Dostour newspaper on 4 August 2021.

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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