Saudi claim of oil tanker sabotage could spiral into US-Iran conflict
Saudi Arabia's claim that two of its oil tankers have been sabotaged off the coast of the UAE is vague in detail, but could create a crisis that spins out of control and into military action.
Any attack on shipping in or close to the Strait of Hormuz, the 48km-wide channel at the entrance to the Gulf, is always serious because it is the most important choke point for the international oil trade. A significant armed action by the US or its allies against Iran would likely provoke Iranian retaliation in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region.
Although the US is militarily superior to Iran, the Iranians as a last resort could fire rockets or otherwise attack Saudi and UAE oil facilities.
Such apocalyptic events are unlikely - but powerful figures in Washington, such as the national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, appear to be prepared to take the risk of a war breaking out.
Mr Bolton has long publicly demanded the overthrow of the Iranian government.
"The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs' regime in Tehran," he said last year before taking office.
"The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself."
Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo are reported to have used some mortar rounds landing near the US embassy in Baghdad in February as an excuse to get a reluctant Pentagon to prepare a list of military options against Iran. These would include missile and airstrikes, but it is unclear what these would achieve from the US point of view.
Paradoxically, the US and Saudi Arabia have been talking up war against Iran just as economic sanctions are seriously biting. Iranian oil exports have dropped from 2.8 to 1.3 million barrels a day over the past year. Inflation in Iran is at 40pc and promises by the EU, UK, France and Germany to enable the Islamic republic to avoid sanctions on its oil trade and banking have not been fulfilled. Iran is becoming economically - though not politically - isolated.
One reason why it is unlikely that Iran would carry out sabotage attacks on Saudi oil tankers is that its strategy has been to play a long game and out-wait the Trump administration. Though the Iranian economy may be badly battered, it will probably be able to sustain the pressure.