On Friday, June 21, United States president Donald Trump came as close as ’10 minutes’, before he called off a retaliatory military strike on Iran. Here’s everything that went down in the region.
How it all started
Issues between Iran and Washington have been brewing for quite some time. Trump pulled out of the multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed while Barack Obama was president of the US. Iran threatened to breach the nuclear-enrichment restrictions imposed by the deal in which Germany, China, France, Britain, EU and Russia are signees of. In response, the United States announced the deployment of an additional 1,000 American troops to the Middle East and re-imposed blanket sanctions on Iran.
Tensions in the region rose to the surface with an incident just over a month ago on May 12, when four civilian commercial cargo ships were subjected to reported sabotage operations near the UAE’s territorial waters, east of the emirate of Fujairah. The attacks, in May, did not result in any human damage or injuries, or leakage of any harmful substances or fuel. Fujairah port is one of the world's largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a vital corridor for the global oil market.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported that two Saudi oil tankers also came under the "sabotage attack" off the UAE coast. Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih added that the tankers sustained "significant damage".
The US blamed Iran for these attacks while an investigation by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway pinned them, on a state actor without naming names.
United States, at the time, issued an alert to maritime traffic over alleged "acts of sabotage" of ships off the coast of the UAE amid heightened regional tensions between America and Iran.
Just two days later, two oil pumping stations for the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia were hit by explosive-laden drones on May 14. Iran-backed Houthi militias claimed responsibility for this drone attack. The 1,200-kilometre pipeline carries crude from Saudi Arabia's main eastern oil fields to the Red Sea port city of Yanbu in the west. Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih called the attack "an act of terrorism" that targeted global oil supplies.
The Makkah summit
Arab leaders gathered in Saudi Arabia following these incidents on May 30 for emergency summits that Riyadh hoped would deliver a strong message to Iran that regional powers would defend their interests against any threat following attacks on the oil assets in the region.
The tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman occurred almost exactly a month after the other incidents – on June 13. Two tankers were targeted – the Marshal Islands-flagged Front Altair and the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous. While the crew of both tankers were safely evacuated, both ships sustained damage.
US military released photos last week incriminating Iran for the attacks. Iran has categorically denied any involvement in this and the former incidents.
What happened on Thursday?
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a US drone on Thursday amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over its collapsing nuclear deal with world powers.
The Guard said it shot down a RQ-4 Global Hawk over Iranian airspace, while a US official told The Associated Press the downing happened over international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz.
Previously, the US military alleged Iran had fired a missile at another drone last week that was responding to the attack on two oil tankers near the Gulf of Oman.
The US blames Iran for the attack on the ships” Tehran denies it was involved. Iran said on Friday that it had "indisputable" evidence that a US drone it shot down this week had violated its airspace.
“A very big mistake”
In response to Iran shooting down the US drone, US president Donald Trump tweeted "Iran made a very big mistake!" Later he said, "I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth…I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it."
The president's mixed message left the world unsure what Washington's next move would be.
"We don't seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Imminent attack warning
Iranian officials told Reuters Tehran had received a message from Trump through Oman overnight, warning that a US attack on Iran was imminent.
We don't seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters
Warning for airlines
The US on Friday barred American-registered aircraft from flying over parts of the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman amid the heightened tensions.
Fly Dubai, Etihad, Air Arabia and Emirates airlines have ‘adjusted some of their flight paths as a precautionary measure’ following the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for US-based airlines. United Airlines, Qantas, Air France, KLM, Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines also rerouted their flights to avoid the “areas of possible conflict”.
On Friday, Trump tweeted about the decision to stop the targeted strikes. He said he is in "no hurry" to bomb Iran, revealing that US forces were "cocked and loaded" but that he called them back with minutes to go in order to avoid mass casualties.
"10 minutes before the strike I stopped it," the president said, explaining that a general had told him to expect 150 deaths on the Iranian side and that he had concluded this would not be a "proportionate" response.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reached out to foreign leaders to convince them that the apparent attacks on the key Mideast shipping route is a problem for the world at large.
Indian officials say their navy has deployed two warships to the Gulf of Oman amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Indian navy spokesman Dalip Kumar Sharma says the ships Chennai and Sunayna have deployed to the Gulf of Oman to undertake maritime security operations, escort Indian merchant ships and "coordinate between stakeholders."
Indian military aircraft are also conducting aerial surveillance in the area.
Oil prices and shipping
Oil tanker owners are raising the prices they charge to export Middle East crude, Bloomberg reported, as tensions surge in the region that accounts for about a third of all seaborne petroleum shipments. Insurance rates also soared after these incidents, by almost six times, with companies charging at least $180,000 in premiums to go to the Arabian Gulf. They were about $30,000 early this year before tensions began to escalate.
- With inputs from agencies