A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Alhough the UAE’s official statement on the incident involving the sabotage of four commercial vessels didn’t hold any party responsible, political analysts said all indicators point at Iran, which has repeatedly threatened to disrupt shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

If investigations confirm that Iran was behind the attack, then Tehran is trying to kill too many birds with one stone, analysts said. The possible Iranian goals include testing Washington and its allies” to see how they would react, “sending a message” to world powers that there is a high cost to pay for imposing painful economic sanctions on Iran, and “reinforcing Tehran’s position in any future negotiations” with the US.

“The official statement of the UAE’s Foreign Ministry didn’t accuse any party of being behind [the attack]. However, looking closer at the timing and location of the incident shows that Iran is likely behind it,” said Mohammad Abbas Naji, an expert in Iranian affairs at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Strategic Studies center.

“These sabotage incidents follow continuous Iranian threats to interrupt oil shipments from the region to the international markets,” Naji told Gulf News.

The four commercial ships were hit near UAE territorial waters, east of Fujairah, which is close to Hormuz, between Iran and Oman. It is estimated that almost 20 per cent of the world’s petroleum (about 35 per cent of the petroleum traded by sea) passes through the strategic waterway.

Other experts shared a similar view, and said it could be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, which had been listed by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation, or its agents in the region, especially given that it was the Guards who repeatedly threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, said Riyad Qahwaji, CEO of Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“It could be a message from Iran to the international community that it is serious in its threats. It could also be an attempt to measure the reaction and see how serious the US and its allies in the region are about dealing with an escalating Iranian policy,” Qahwaji told Gulf News.

“Also (the fact that) it was low level sabotage, in which none of the ships were sunk, and no casualties were reported, shows that it was a message more than anything else,” Qahwaji said.

Iran, which is facing severe economic sanctions after Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal saying it wants to reach a new agreement – a demand already rejected by Tehran – is seeking “to give the impression that it has the capability to threaten the region, and the capacity to double the complexity of the region’s crises,” said Naji.

“Iran is trying to boost its negotiations position with the US, and wants to send a message that it can raise the cost of the economic sanctions against it,” he said.

From an analyst’s perspective, Tehran doesn’t have much capacity to change the reality on the ground.

“Today, Iran has only two options, either submit to the (US) pressure and return to the negotiations table or face a confrontation with the US,” said Qahwaji.

Already the US has deployed warships and warplanes to the Gulf region.

The third option of surviving the economic sanctions would be extremely difficult, especially given that the present embargo is very tough and the Iranian economy is on the verge of collapse, said Qahwaji.

After the conclusion of the investigations over Sunday’s accident, analysts believe there will be a message for Iran.

“Should this type of incident be repeated, there would be a deterrent response,” said Naji. Sunday’s attack could be a prelude to further escalation against the US interests in the future, he said.

Even many countries outside the Gulf see Hormuz as a matter of “national security” for many countries, analysts said.

The importance of the region to international trade and oil shipping lanes would make it important to stop Iran from any attempt to shut down the passage, said Naji.

Moreover, the importance of Strait of Hormuz could even make it ‘easy’ for the US to form an alliance against Iran to confront it economically and , if necessary, militarily,” said Qahwaji.

Vital strait

■ The Strait has been at the heart of regional tensions for decades and Iran has repeatedly threatened to shut it down.

■ It is a waterway separating Iran and Oman, connecting the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

■ It is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, but the shipping lane is only two miles wide in either direction.

■ Most of the crude exported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq passes through it. It is also the route for nearly all the liquefied natural gas (LNG) from lead exporter Qatar.

■ It is estimated that sea-borne crude and condensate flows transiting the Strait were around 17.2 million bpd of sea-borne crude in 2017 and around 17.4 million bpd in the first half of 2018,

■ The US Energy Information Administration estimates a record 18.5 million bpd of seaborne oil passed through it in 2016, a 9 per cent increase on flows in 2015, which accounted for 30 per cent of all sea-borne traded crude oil and other liquids during the year.