What's In Blue

Posted Thu 5 Aug 2021

Maritime Incident off the Coast of Oman: Meeting under “Any Other Business”

Tomorrow (6 August) morning, following the open briefing and closed consultations on Afghanistan, Security Council members will discuss a 29 July attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman under “any other business”. The meeting was requested by Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US. There is no briefer expected at tomorrow’s meeting. At the time of writing, a Council product on the issue is not expected.

The meeting will focus on the attack against the merchant vessel Mercer Street—a Liberia-flagged, Singapore-owned, UK-operated commercial oil tanker which is managed by an Israeli-owned company—which resulted in the deaths of two crew members, one British national and one Romanian national.

In a 3 August letter to the Security Council, Liberia, Romania and the UK claimed that “initial assessments by the UK and international partners, shared by Romania, concluded that it is highly likely” that Iran carried out the attack “using one or more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)”. They expressed concern that such attacks pose a risk to international peace and security and said that the incident should be condemned by the international community. On the same day, the Permanent Representative of Israel sent a letter to the Security Council in which he attributed the attack to Iran and also accused Tehran of perpetrating attacks against Israeli-owned vessels on 2 March and 14 April. In a 4 August letter to the Council, Iran strongly rejected the accusations set out in the 3 August letters. According to media reports, Israeli officials briefed ambassadors of Council members on 3 August in Tel Aviv and presented intelligence information which, according to Israel, proves that Iran is responsible for the attack.

In a separate incident on 3 August, unknown gunmen reportedly boarded the Panama-flagged Asphalt Princess asphalt tanker in the Gulf of Oman. The gunmen reportedly left the ship after the arrival of US and Omani warships and no injuries were reported. Although there have been no direct accusations of Iranian responsibility, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps denied any involvement in a 3 August statement on Iranian state media.

During tomorrow’s meeting, the UK is expected to argue that Iran was responsible for the 29 July drone strike on the Mercer Street and present evidence which, in its view, proves this allegation. The US is also expected to claim that Iran was responsible for the attack. In a 1 August statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack, which killed two innocent people, using one-way explosive UAVs, a lethal capability it is increasingly employing throughout the region”. Other Council members are also likely to share their views in relation to the attack. Some members may support the claims made by the UK and the US, while others might be more reluctant to adopt a definite position regarding attribution. On 4 August, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told reporters that “we are still studying the details, there is a lot of conflicting information, a lot of ‘highly likely’ analysis, which we totally reject”. He added that “we need to establish facts [before] we rush to any conclusions or actions”. The previous day, European Commission spokeswoman Nabila Massrali described the strike as “unacceptable” but noted that the exact circumstances “have to be clarified”.

The meeting comes during a fraught stage of the negotiations regarding the US’ possible re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme (JCPOA). The sixth round of these talks, which have been taking place in Vienna, concluded on 20 June. Although the negotiations were initially scheduled to resume in mid-July, Iran advised the remaining parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK) that it would not participate until its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, assumed office. Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric and former judge who is currently subject to US sanctions, was sworn in on 5 August. In a news conference on 21 June, Raisi stated that Iran’s ballistic missile and regional programs were non-negotiable. These programs are a crucial point of contention in the negotiations, as the US wants to negotiate a new deal that encompasses a broader range of issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for regional militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.