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Attacks on oil tankers in Gulf spark fears of return to 1980s 'Tanker Wars'

The spate of alleged Iranian attacks on oil ships in the Gulf of Oman has raised global fears of a return to the “Tanker Wars” of the 1980s, when oil tankers were regularly targeted and US warships fought cat-and-mouse battles with Iranian forces. 

Shipping analysts said that this week’s attack on two oil tanker had sent tensions in the Gulf to their highest point since 1987, when Iraq and Iran began destroying each other’s oil infrastructure, and sent maritime insurance prices spiraling. 

The Tanker Wars ended only after the US deployed its largest naval convoy since the Second World War to protect Kuwaiti oil vessels and after American forces engaged in direct combat with Iranian ships.    

“We’ve had six tankers explode in that region in the last four weeks. The industry is about as close to a conflict footing as it has ever been been in the past,” said Richard Meade, the editor of Lloyd’s List, a shipping intelligence agency.

“We haven't seen tankers being targeted or caught in the cross fire in this way since the late 1980s. The industry is understandably very nervous and this is being taken very seriously.”

Meanwhile, US officials said Iranian forces had attempted to shoot down an American drone in the Gulf of Oman shortly before beginning their attack on two oil tankers on Thursday, according to CNN.

If confirmed, the attempt would signal a willingness by Iran to directly confront the US in the Persian Gulf, rather than striking non-American targets in the hope of avoiding retaliation by US forces.

The unmanned drone reportedly observed Iranian vessels in the vicinity of the two oil tankers but did not capture them actually carrying out the attack. 

Another US drone was reportedly successfully shot down by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. The rebels released photos of a wrecked aircraft but the US has not officially confirmed what happened.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, repeated his threat on Saturday to breach the 2015 nuclear agreement by resuming enrichment of the kind of high-grade uranium which could be used in a nuclear weapon. 

Mr Rouhani has said that high-grade enrichment will resume in July unless the European signatories to the nuclear deal find a way to circumvent US sanctions and bring relief to Iran’s faltering economy. 

“Iran cannot stick to this agreement unilaterally," Mr Rouhani told Russian, Chinese and other Asian leaders at a conference in Tajikistan. 

He did not mention the tanker incident but Iran has denied responsibility.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, and several other Conservative leadership candidates also condemned Jeremy Corbyn after the Labour leader questioned whether there was credible evidence Iran was responsible for this week’s attacks.   

The US released a video which it said showed Iranian forces trying to hide evidence of attacking the tankers and the British government said that it was “almost certain” that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was responsible. 

“Without credible evidence about the tanker attacks, the government’s rhetoric will only increase the threat of war,” Mr Corbyn said. 

More than 450 ships were attacked during the eight years of fighting. Alarmed by the spiraling conflict, the US took Kuwaiti tankers under its own protection and deployed 30 warships to the Persian Gulf. 

The conflict led to direct combat between Iran and the US, including Operation Praying Mantis, where US forces killed around 60 Iranian sailors in response to an American ship being damaged by a naval mine. 

The US Navy accidentally shot down a civilian Iran Air flight during that period, killing all 290 people onboard. 

Brett McGurk, a former US diplomat, said there was potentially “more risk and uncertainty today” than in 1988 because the Tanker War was confined to the Persian Gulf while current asymmetric struggle between the US was playing out in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.   

It remains unclear what will happen to the 23 crew members of the Front Altair, one of the damaged tankers, who were picked up by Iranian forces and taken to the Iranian port of Jask. Eleven of the crew are Russian and they are expected to be eventually repatriated.  

US officials said Iranian speed boats were preventing tugs from reaching the stranded Front Altair and towing it back to port. The Kokuka Courageous, other tanker, was expected to be returned to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday. 

Mr Hunt called the comments “pathetic and predictable”. “From Salisbury to the Middle East, why can he never bring himself to back British allies, British intelligence or British interests?” Mr Hunt said.

Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, and Sajid Javid also criticised Mr Corbyn's comments. Mr Raab said the Labour leader was allowing "his anti-American prejudice to skew his moral compass and political judgment".

Heiko Mass, the German foreign minister, also said the grainy video released by the US was “not enough” to prove Iran was behind the attack. The UN called for an independent investigation into what happened.  

Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said there must a be a "swift and decisive" reponse to the threats against energy supplies caused by the attacks.

The Tanker War began in 1981 but erupted into all-out conflict three years later when Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked Iranian oil tankers and Iran responded by targeting Kuwaiti tankers carrying Iraqi oil.   

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