Are tensions between US, Gulf allies and Iran coming to a head?

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Are tensions between US, Gulf allies and Iran coming to a head?

Iran-backed rebels attacking a Saudi oil pipeline with drones. A puzzling raid on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Sabre-rattling between Washington and Tehran as US warships head to the region.

Many details remain unclear about events in the Gulf over the past few days.

But as facts emerge about apparent acts of sabotage, analysts on the oil-rich region warned that deepening tensions between the United States, its Gulf allies, and Iran could be coming to a head.

“There are more questions than answers right now, but it’s not looking good,” Eckart Woertz, an expert on Gulf security and energy markets at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

“The attack on the tankers and the oil pipeline must be viewed against the backdrop of a US military build-up in the Gulf and worsening relations with Iran since the US unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal.”

Tensions have ratcheted up between the US and Iran following Washington’s decision this month to try and cut Iranian oil exports to zero and to send a US aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf in response to an unspecified threat.

“I don’t expect to see a full-scale land invasion, but I’m watching for military escalations by the US or Iranian proxies in Iraq and any other strikes on oil facilities that prove more effective and actually disrupt the flow of oil,” added Woertz.

Houthi drone attacks

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia said armed drones struck two of its oil pumping stations on the east-west Petroline pipeline in an apparent long-range attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, some 320km west of the capital, Riyadh.

The state-run oil company, Aramco, temporarily shut down the pipeline, which had suffered minor damage from a fire. The event sent crude prices up by 1.4 percent, settling at more than $71 a barrel.

Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen claimed responsibility for the hit. They have been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen since 2015 and are believed to have received drones, ballistic missiles, and other arms from Iran, according to United Nations reports.

The drone attack came two days after an apparent act of sabotage on two Saudi oil tankers, an Emirati vessel, and a Norwegian-registered oil product tanker that were bunkering close to Fujairah in the UAE.

The UAE has not blamed anyone for that attack. US national security agencies have pointed fingers at Iran, the Houthis, or other Iranian proxies, but have not offered any conclusive proof.

Iran has denied involvement.

On Wednesday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric condemned both attacks and called for an “investigation to determine the facts” behind the tanker sabotage and for those responsible to be held to account.  

Dujarric also warned of “hardening rhetoric” in the region.

In an email to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Britain’s foreign office warned of the “risk of unintended escalation” in a volatile region and cautioned Tehran against taking any “escalatory steps”.

‘Warning of what’s to come’

Analysts told Al Jazeera the attacks underlined the vulnerabilities of regional powers Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Both governments have sought to open alternate oil export routes that avoid the Strait of Hormuz, a key seaway through which one-fifth of global oil passes but which is vulnerable to possible Iranian disruption.

Jim Krane, author of Energy Kingdoms and a research analyst on the Gulf at Rice University, said the attacks appear to have deliberately targeted oil transit routes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE established to skirt Hormuz.

“Whoever’s behind these attacks seems to be signalling that no country’s oil exports are safe,” Krane told Al Jazeera.

“The attacks seem to demonstrate that, even though the UAE and Saudi have taken steps to mitigate risk, they’re still at risk. It’s a warning of what’s to come if this standoff between the US and Iran escalates.”

Imad Harb, research and analysis director at the Arab Center think-tank in Washington, DC, described the attacks as a reminder of how vulnerable the hydrocarbon-exporting region was to oil price shocks.

“The Houthi attack has the added important goal of sending a message directly to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the Yemeni insurgents can inflict great damage on their economies,” Harb told Al Jazeera.

“This can be translated into leverage over how the war in Yemen develops in the future. The Houthis may think, correctly, that they can improve their position in any future negotiations if they prove that they can hurt Saudi Arabia and the UAE in this way.”

‘Smoke and mirrors’

US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year and has sharply increased economic sanctions on Iran. Under the 2015 accord, Tehran had agreed to curb its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

Meanwhile, the US provides military and logistical support to its allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for their war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis and in support of the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Some analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera feel the Trump administration is acting recklessly. Jonathan Cristol, an expert on Gulf security at Adelphi University, accused Washington of “smoke and mirrors” tactics. 

“Is there a threat from Iran? Sure. But that’s a constant. Houthi activity against Saudi is also not new. So while this does not excuse Iranian activity, it is again the Trump administration reframing the routine as shocking and new,” said Cristol.

Sunjeev Bery, director of Freedom Forward, which campaigns for Washington to cut ties with foreign autocrats, said the deepening tensions were a wake-up call for Washington about how to pick friends in the Gulf.

“Another US war in the Middle East would be catastrophic for the region and the Trump administration needs to put a leash on National Security Adviser John Bolton, the biggest advocate for a conflict that no smart policymaker wants,” Bery told Al Jazeera.

“Instead of hyperventilating about Iran, the US should cut ties with allies like Saudi and UAE, which fuel instability across the region with a bloody war in Yemen and support for military thugs in Libya and Sudan.”

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