Iran creating a 'powder keg' that risks a Gulf War

Arab League chief urges Tehran to 'reverse course' after tanker attacks

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The head of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, on Friday suggested Iran was behind the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks, warning that a deteriorating security situation was a powder keg capable of developing into all-out war.

Speaking in New York alongside UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Mr Aboul Gheit urged Iran to change course as the whole world stood to suffer if a conflict erupted.

“I detect and I see behaviour of a certain party in the Gulf that is deepening the confrontation,” he said. “Everybody has to restrain themselves and to revisit their actions and behaviour.

“It is a powder keg. Any wrong move might lead to ramifications that would take us back to 20 or 30 years ago, and war, so we have to be careful.”

Mr Guterres said an independent investigation was needed to discover who committed the attacks in the early hours of Thursday.

“We believe that the truth needs to be clearly established,” he said.

“Responsibilities need to be clearly defined. The world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf.”

His remarks followed the Pentagon's release of a video that US officials cited as evidence that Iran had attacked the two ships, one Japanese and one Norwegian-owned, about 25 miles off Iran's south-western coast.

US President Donald Trump said in an interview after the footage aired, purportedly showing Iranian crew members removing an unexploded mine from the side of one ship, that “Iran did do it”.

epa07361490 Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abou Al-Gheit speaks during a press conference following his meeting with the Lebanese President at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east Beirut, Lebanon, 11 February 2019. Abou Al-Gheit arrived to Lebanon to invite Lebanese president Michel Aoun to attend the European-Arab Summit in Egypt on the last week of February, and for the Arab League Summit in Tunisia in March 2019.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
Mr Aboul Gheit said contradictory accounts from owners of the stricken ships showed the need for further investigation. EPA

“You know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn't explode and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” he told Fox News.

Just hours before Thursday's attack a missile fired from an Iranian boat missed a US drone, plunging into the water, a US official told CNN on Friday.

The MQ-9 drone watched Iranian vessels approaching the oil tankers, the official said, but did not reveal if it saw the attack take place.

Later on Friday, British authorities announced they too were "almost certain" Iran's IRGC was behind the attack.

"Our own assessment leads us to conclude that responsibility for the attacks almost certainly lies with Iran," said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

"These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilising Iranian behaviour and pose a serious danger to the region."

Mr Aboul Gheit said contradictory accounts from owners of the stricken ships – one company said the attack was airborne and not due to mines, as the US said – showed the need for further investigation.

“The findings will be revealed I am sure. It is only a matter of time,” said the Arab League chief, whose tone was diplomatic but direct, calling Iranian officials the Arab world's “brothers” but blaming them for raising tensions in the Gulf and broader region.

“Sadly we have a problem in the Middle East with a very important and large Muslim state. Iran,” Mr Aboul Gheit said.

“Iran, sadly, takes advantage of many of the problems of Arab countries and tries to further its own interests... using the problems of the region to enhance its position vis-a-vis its opponents. The Iranians, hopefully, should reflect and reverse course because without reversing their course they are alienating many of their neighbours, Arab countries, and they should not do so.”

Russia's Foreign Ministry said those seeking to name a perpetrator so soon were making "deliberate efforts to whip up tensions, which are largely encouraged by the United States’ Iranophobic policy".

"Moscow resolutely condemns the attacks whoever might be behind them," the ministry said in a statement. "It is inadmissible to place responsibility for the incident on anyone until a thorough and unbiased international investigation is over."

Iran on Thursday denied involvement in the attacks and accused the US and its allies of warmongering.

The two vessels were struck and abandoned close to the Strait of Hormuz, a potential chokepoint for exports out of the Arabian Gulf.

Iran has in recent months threatened to block the strait in retaliation for the US's “maximum pressure” campaign on its economy, part of which is the Trump administration's plan to reduce Tehran's foreign oil sales to zero.

“They're not going to be closing it,” Mr Trump contended, when asked about Iran's actions regarding the strait. The price of crude rose again on Friday.

Oil sales are Iran's main source of foreign income but they have dwindled since the US unilaterally withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, negotiated by Mr Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. America's exit from the accord and the reimposition of sanctions has seen Iran's economy suffer, falling into a recession while inflation has risen.

The situation has been made worse because foreign companies have withdrawn from deals for fear of themselves facing US financial penalties for dealing with Tehran.