How world community should see Iranian state piracy in the Gulf

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Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

On 3 August, a group of Iranian-backed forces was reported to have seized an oil tanker in the Gulf off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. This incident comes after Britain’s maritime trade agency reported a “potential hijack” in the area. The vessel was identified as the Panama-flagged asphalt/bitumen tanker Asphalt Princess in an area in the Arabian Sea leading to the Strait of Hormuz, a significant strait through which about a fifth of the world’s oil seaborne oil exports flow. In a warning notice, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations advised ships to exercise extreme caution due to an incident around 60 nautical miles east of the UAE’s Fujairah emirate.

A day later, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations organisation reported that the potential hijack ended and the vessel was safe without identifying the ship. However, satellite data showed that the vessel was slowly heading toward Iranian waters of the port of Jask early Wednesday. The incident of the potential hijack came as MaritineTraffic.com spoke about the loss of the power of six oil tankers that could no longer steer around the same time. The tanker’s Automatic Identification System trackers showed that these tankers were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.

A US Navy guided-missile destroyer was dispatched to the area, but it did not arrive until after the gunmen had left. It made contact with the crew, which reported that members were assaulted and the master was held at gunpoint.

A US official said that suspected Iranian gunmen hijacked the tanker Asphalt Princess on Tuesday, assaulting the crew and destroying equipment before rapidly departing the ship. The gunmen who raided the tanker and wearing Iranian coast guard uniforms were reported to have forcibly boarded and seized control of the ship for about seven hours before leaving the scene. The US official said that “Our aircraft photographed the Iranian gunmen onboard and observed them removing something from the ship as they departed” noting that the situation looked like an “Iranian state-sponsored shakedown by Iranian forces” and that it had “all the hallmarks of international piracy.”

The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out the crew.

Despite Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied responsibility saying that reports of security incidents involving several ships near the UAE coast on Tuesday were “suspicious”, warning of any effort to create a “false atmosphere” against the Islamic Republic, all the hallmarks of Iranian-sponsored piracy. Iran recently suspect attacks come amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers and commercial shipping in the region has found itself caught in the crosshairs.

World condemnations

The recent Iranian attacks have also prompted a wide scale of international contaminations, in particular, from the US, the United Kingdom and Israel which see them as much internationalised state of play in the Gulf region. In a statement, the head of the British military, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter accused Iran of making a big mistake when attacking the Mercer Street tanker, killing Briton and Romanian citizens. Additionally, and as Gen Carter pointed out, these incidents could lead to miscalculations and disastrous consequences for not only the Gulf states but also the international community.

Western powers could not agree more on the responsibility of the Iranian regime because a week before the recent incidents Iran was suspected of being involved in launching a drone strike on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman. Although Tehran denied playing any role, Iran and its proxy militias in the region had used similar suicide drones in past attacks. Consequently, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States have vowed a “collective response” to these attacks, according to an official US source.

History of Iranian attacks

For the past two years, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings including limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

In July 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz as it was headed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The raid came after authorities in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, seized an Iranian supertanker carrying $130 million in crude oil on suspicion it was breaking European Union sanctions by taking the oil to Syria. Both vessels were later released.

Last year, an oil tanker sought by the United States over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast in July, following months of tensions between Iran and the United States. The vessel and its crew ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.

In January, armed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran insisted it stopped the ship from polluting, it came as Tehran sought to increase its influence over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

Similar recent attacks have led to rising tensions between Iran and Israel, particularly after the attack last week on an Israeli-managed tanker off the Omani coast that killed two crew members and was blamed on Iran by the United States, Israel and Britain.

How retaliation will look like?

Some observers see military retaliation against Tehran is inevitable given the regime’s reckless behaviour that could have further triggered a disastrous escalation of hostilities in the region between Iran on its proxies on one hand and Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom on the other. However, apart from Israel, it seems that these states are not serious about standing up to Tehran because all parties cannot afford to be involved in militarily hostilities because their mutual interests would be jeopardised. For example, both the United States and Britain have dual-national prisoners in Iran. Conversely, Iran made it clear that it wanted the US sanctions to be lifted, and that cannot be fulfilled without returning to compliance with Iran nuclear deal agreed in 2015 under the US President Barack Obama administration.

The most challenging issue, however, is the change of government in Tehran with the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi on its head. This makes the negotiations on Iran nuclear deal more delicate than ever, especially Raisi’s foreign policy will be understood as confrontational.

Having said that, the recent condemnations from world powers against Iran, aggressive behaviours in the Gulf waters have put an end to the Israeli-Iranian shadow war of non-attributable attacks which have been going on for the past six months. The latest Iranian attacks should not be left without punishment, not only because they are reckless but also to make Raisi’s government think again about launching similar attacks in future.

Source » trackpersia

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