Iran suggests oil attacks orchestrated to spark conflict

Iranian officials accused “hardliners” in the United States and elsewhere of attempting to orchestrate an incident that would ratchet up tensions with the Islamic Republic, as the supreme leader vowed there would be no war.

The allegation by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday came as tensions in the Gulf continue to rise as American military forces head to the region and amid a series of attacks on oil infrastructure.

Four ships – two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati – were damaged on Sunday off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in what Emirati officials described as acts of sabotage near the port of Fujairah.

The incident happened 140km south of the Strait of Hormuz, where about one-third of all oil traded by sea passes through.

“We … talked about the policies that hardliners in the US administration as well as in the region are attempting to impose,” Zarif told Iranian state TV in India after a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

“We raised concerns over the suspicious activities and sabotage that are happening in our region. We had formerly anticipated that they would carry out these sorts of activities to escalate tension.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday there would be no war with the US despite mounting concerns. He also reiterated Iran would not negotiate with the US on a new nuclear deal.

“There won’t be any war. The Iranian nation has chosen the path of resistance,” he said. “Neither we nor them seek war. They know it will not be in their interest.” 

Norwegian-flagged oil tanker MT Andrea Victory off the coast of Fujairah [UAE National Media Council via AP]

Details of the alleged oil vessel sabotage remained unclear, and UAE officials have declined to say who they suspected was responsible.

Mohammad Javad Jamali, an Iranian member of parliament, accused unidentified countries in the region of trying “to drag Trump into a war”.

“I think the talk of explosions in Fujairah is just a hasty scenario and it suffers many shortcomings. Whoever stands behind this is pushing for a failed plan,” said Jamali.

Fatemeh Aman, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said the attacks on the vessels may have been planned as a pretext to start a conflict with Tehran.

“The attack on the ships was predictable and it looks like it was orchestrated to function as a pretext to attack Iran,” Aman told Al Jazeera. “Any incident or sabotage could be falsely attributed to Iran, even if Iran had no involvement.”

Arch foes Saudi Arabia and Iran have both used proxy forces in the region to further their aspirations. 

Asked by Al Jazeera if Riyadh may be attempting to push the US towards war with Iran, analyst Tim Constantine said: “Considering the Saudi position on Iran and the well-known position of the Trump administration on Iran, yes I think the Saudis can be counted on to stir the pot and encourage a very aggressive stance by the United States.” 

No conclusive proof

The alleged attacks demonstrated the raised risks for shippers in a region vital to global energy supplies as tensions are increasing between the US and Iran over its unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for a series of drone attacks on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities in its eastern region on Tuesday, further ratcheting up tensions.

The US Maritime Administration said last week Iran could target US commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways.

An unnamed US official familiar with American intelligence told Reuters news agency that Iran was a prime suspect in Sunday’s sabotage off the UAE coast, although Washington had no conclusive proof.

The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia said Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it determined who was behind the attacks near Fujairah.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Tuesday.

“It’s not in [Iran’s] interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”

US military plan? 

On Monday, the New York Times reported that the top US defence official has presented an updated military plan to Trump’s administration that envisions sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East, should Iran attack US forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons.

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied the report.

“I think it’s fake news, okay? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Tensions between Iran and the US have intensified since Trump pulled out of a 2015 international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities and imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Tehran.

Trump wants to force Tehran to agree to a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what US officials have said are threats to US troops in the region.

Iran has said the US is engaging in “psychological warfare”, called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat and said it will not allow its oil exports to be halted.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday he was getting indications from talks with both the US and Iran that “things will end well” despite the current ramping up of rhetoric.

But analysts suggest things could quickly escalate as the American military presence in the region grows. 

“Iran could actually view some of this as being a potential buildup for some type of offensive action,” said Becca Wasser, a RAND Corp analyst specialising in Gulf security.

“It raises the risk of accidental escalation. Because the US and Iran don’t have clear lines of communication at the moment, everything can be perceived in a very different light than one side is intending.”

Al Jazeera’s Ali Younes contributed to this report 

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