Even in ordinary times, an attack on commercial tankers near the Strait of Hormuz – a vital sea lane for world oil supplies, located between Iran and Oman – would be a matter of concern for global trade. That such incidents were reported on Thursday, at a time of soaring US-Iran tensions, making them an even greater threat. Not just for global commerce, but also for peace and security in the region and the world.
Thursday's incidents, which caused damage to Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, came just one month after United Arab Emirates reported sabotage attacks against four other commercial ships off the coast of its Fujairah emirate.
The United States, which has been building its military presence in the region, has blamed Iran for both events
Hours after the latest incidents were reported, the US military released a grainy video that it said showed members of The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) attempts to remove an unexploded mine from Kokuka Courageous
Mohammad Javad Zarif,
Tehran has denied US accusations, saying the latest claims are both ridiculous and dangerous. Iran's foreign minister, also called the timing of reported "suspect" attacks, marking a Japanese-owned ship was damaged while Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a visit to Tehran seeking to defuse US-Iran frictions.
'Ridiculous, dangerous': Iran denies US claims over Gulf tankers
As the calls grew for an international inquiry, the owner of the Kokuka Courageous cast doubt on the US narrative saying the vessel's crew saw a "flying object" before it was rocked by a second blast.
"I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship," Yutaka Katada said on Friday.
Analysts reacted to US allegations with skepticism. And even those who found the claims credible said Washington may have pushed Iran's hand to its "maximum pressure" campaign of penalizing financial sanctions.
"Tehran has the ability to commit such attacks and has threatened to interfere with shipping in the Gulf while it is also in a state of desperation due to tight sanctions and international isolation," said Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University in the US.
That Iranian threat followed a US bid to cut Iran's oil production to zero. The US move, announced in May, came after Washington re-imposed sanctions on Iran, a year after exiting an international accord that lifted global sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program.
US President Donald Trump said the renewed financial pressure was aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a new deal that would also address its ballistic missiles project.
Iran, however, has remained defiant.
Despite US sanctions triggering an economic crisis in the country, Iranian leaders said they would not be bullied into talks with the US. Instead, they threatened the counter-measures, including the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of oil traded by sea passes. "A According to international law, the Strait of Hormuz is a maritime passageway and if we are barred from using it, we will shut it down," General Alireza Tangsiri, commander-in -chief of the IRGC's navy, said in April.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the same last December. "If one day they want to prevent the export of Iranian oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf," he had warned.
The Islamic Republic has also warned it will withdraw from the nuclear agreement if other parties to the agreement – Germany, France, United Kingdom,
Barbara Slavin, director of the Iranian Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said if Iran was responsible for Thursday's attacks, it has been carrying out its repeated threats that other countries in the region would also "face obstacles" in exporting oil.
"The aim would be to show the international community that its agreement to US secondary sanctions is not cost-free and to show the Trump administration that far from curbing Iran's" malign "policies, US actions are incentivising them."  'Skepticism warranted'
But with Iran still appealing to the remaining signatories to deliver on its promised economic benefits, Abrahms said it was not in Tehran's interests to disrupt trade in the Gulf.
"The question arises as to why Tehran would commit such an attack because it only harms Iran on the world stage and helps its enemies, while is skepticism also warranted due to the unreliability of [US’] intelligence , "he said referring to the defective intelligence Washington used to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
And despite Iran's defiance to the US moves, attacks on international oil shipments in the Gulf represented a qualitatively different type of activity, others noted. "It could not be Iran's job or even that of certain elements within the Iranian state," said Hamidreza Azizi, professor of international relations at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran
"Consider the coincidence of these attacks with Abe's landmark trip to Tehran, the presence of a Russian crew on the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, the proximity of the incident site to Iran's territorial waters, and finally the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's emphasis that "resistance" does not mean military action, and you will realise Tehran's not the culprit, "he said.