On the 13th of June, two commercial vessels were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, one of the world’s most important oil shipping routes. This latest attack has occurred relatively close to a similar attack in May. Occurring amidst heightened tension in the region, it is currently uncertain who is responsible. However, the United States and its allies in the Middle East have immediately blamed Iran, releasing video footage which they claim proves Iran responsible. Iran has categorically denied the accusations.
The video supposedly shows an Iranian crew member retrieving an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of the tankers. The reliability of the evidence released by the United States has international commentators uncertain. Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University in the United States, told Al Jazeera, “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 scepticism is also warranted due to the unreliability of [US’] intelligence.” Al Jazeera reports that the unreliability he refers to is the intelligence previously used to justify the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The video is further compromised by the recollection of the crew on the Kokuka Courageous, one of the ships that was attacked. Yutaka Katada, the owner of the vessel, told reporters that the ship’s crew saw a “flying object” before a second blast on the boat occurred.
At present, the most important thing going forward is to acquire further evidence. To the historically-minded reader, the latest attack may echo the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was this event which saw the United States involve itself more fully in the Vietnam War, leading the nation into one of its longest, and most opposed, conflicts. There are significant disparities between the two events, of course. The Gulf of Tonkin incident directly involved ships of the U.S. Navy, whereas the recent attacks were on commercial vessels. The most important connection is that the lack of firm evidence led to an escalation of the conflict.
The best path forward is for an international investigation to be undertaken. This view is shared by Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Al Jazeera reports that he told reporters on Friday that the attacks must be investigated thoroughly before any action is taken. “Obviously that can only be done if there is an independent entity that verifies those facts,” he said. Guterres noted that such an investigation is at the mercy of the United Nations Security Council. It is important that the members of the UN Security Council put aside their differences and allow for a full investigation to be mounted. If strong and reliable evidence can prove that Iran is the guilty party in this situation, then an international response should be pursued. An attack on commercial vessels in one of the world’s most important shipping areas is not only an act of wanton aggression but also poses a great risk to civilian and marine life. Ultimately, conflict in the region should be avoided. A war would not only lead to a great loss of life but would also have devastating economic effects, potentially impacting international actors with little to no connection to the present situation.