The Fujairah Attack and Broader Regional Tensions
By Darko Lazar
At first glance, this week’s attack on a number of ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates appears to have the potential to be a catalyst for a broader regional, and even global, conflict.
But the exact details about the incident remain shrouded in mystery.
The messages from all sides are inconsistent, and naturally, this has given way to completely contradictory interpretations, not only of what has transpired, but where to place the blame.
The Beirut-based satellite channel al-Mayadeen first broke the story on Sunday morning, citing "Gulf sources" who reported that between seven and ten oil tankers had been struck in the attack.
The story was picked up by Iranian media outlets that were quickly naming the vessels attacked and their countries of origin – among them a supertanker capable of transporting more than two million barrels of oil.
It took the Emirati authorities several hours to address the reports, and when they finally did, they tried to downplay the scope of the incident.
Today, the official UAE line remains that only four vessels were ‘sabotaged’.
There is no further information on how the attacks were carried out or what was used to inflict the damage; was it mines, torpedoes, rockets or something entirely different, perhaps?
Whatever the case, the timing seemed perfect to lay the blame at Iran’s doorstep.
After all, the Trump administration had just dispatched an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers, Patriot missiles and a boatload of marines to the Gulf region.
The deployment ran in tandem with threats from Washington that any attack by Iran “or its proxies” on “US interests or citizens” would be enough to unleash the wrath of the US armada.
But aside from the muted allegations from a few anonymous US officials, the Americans and the Gulf monarchies are yet to accuse Iran of anything concrete.
If Iranian armed forces or their allies had indeed carried out such an operation, the aftermath has exposed serious vulnerabilities on the part of their adversaries.
For starters, the reputation of the UAE port in Fujairah as a stable and secure facility has been dramatically undermined.
The strategic importance of the port cannot be understated. It sits just south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf region through which a third of all of the world’s oil at sea is traded.
The strait, which the US Energy Information Administration [EIA] describes as “the world's most important oil transit chokepoint”, is becoming increasingly tense – and oil prices are rising.
Fujairah serves these shipping routes in the Gulf, as well as the Indian subcontinent and Africa, and is the only terminal in the UAE located on the Arabian Sea.
This is an area packed with American firepower. But the US military and their newly deployed assets failed to ensure security for their friends in the Gulf – supposedly their primary function in the region.
And although this latest incident comes on the heels of the escalation of tensions in the area, officials on the west bank of the Gulf picked their words carefully this week.
The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Abizaid, said on Tuesday that Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war”.
“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,” he added.
Further west, US President Donald Trump described reports about a planned deployment of up to 120,000 American troops to the Middle East as “fake news”.
“Would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that,” Trump told reporters.
These statements suggest that contrary to months of inflammatory rhetoric and unilateral actions that have undermined regional stability and security, Washington is far from eager to jump into a direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
And for good reason, too. Blueprints for a war on Iran date back many decades and have made their way through the hands of numerous American administrations.
The latest was that of George W. Bush, who enlisted experts and used intelligence findings to weigh the pros and cons. The conclusion was always unanimous – the scale of the conflict would be impossible to control, and its consequences could be potentially disastrous for US interests.
Don’t forget about the B-team
Speaking to the press in India on Tuesday, Iran’s top diplomat dismissed speculation that his country was behind the attacks in the UAE.
Mohammad Javad Zarif accused “hardliners” in the US and elsewhere of attempting to orchestrate a conflict.
Earlier, he tweeted that he predicted “accidents” back in April, “not because I am a genius but because the B-team is so brazenly following John Bolton’s script”.
Zarif’s hawkish ‘B-team’ is a reference to US National Security Adviser John Bolton, ‘Israeli’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as the UAE’s de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Many regional observers agree with the Iranian foreign minister.
Experts note that provocative actions by the US and its Mideast allies, namely ‘Israel’, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have created ideal conditions for triggering a war.
As such, many do not rule out the possibility that the ‘sabotage’ of the vessels in Emirati waters was the work of ‘Israeli’, Saudi and American assets, with the aim of justifying the start of hostilities against Iran.
However, this should not be confused for some sort of unified front against Tehran. These players have very different individual objectives, and very different ideas for the future of the region.
For the Americans, the current status-quo guarantees a hefty chunk of petrodollars in exchange for their so-called ‘protection’, and the latest incident only serves to reinforce that narrative.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is struggling to keep his military relevant on the regional chessboard, where Tel Aviv can no longer invade its foes at will. A limited, US-led military strike against Iran would be ideal for the ‘Israelis’ to be able to claim that they have restored the regional balance of power.
The ‘Israelis’ are undoubtedly the biggest wildcard in the entire equation – and certainly the most dangerous.
After all, the modern-day, anti-Iran card was born in Tel Aviv. If the endgame of the UAE incident is to accuse the Iranians of disrupting global oil supplies, it could be a prelude for efforts to assemble a more coherent coalition against the Islamic Republic.