The US and Iran are in serious danger of stumbling into a war “by accident”, Jeremy Hunt warned Monday, as tensions continued to mount and Saudi Arabia claimed two of its oil tankers were damaged in a mysterious attack in the Persian Gulf.
Tensions between the US and Iran are at their highest point in years, with the White House deploying growing numbers of American forces to the Middle East in response to what it says are threats of Iranian attacks.
Iran has said that in 60 days it will violate the 2015 nuclear agreement and resume enriching high-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon unless the world finds a way to ease the impact of US sanctions that have devastated its economy.
Mr Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, called for a “period of calm” to avoid an unintended escalation between the two sides.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” he said in Brussels.
Persian gulf sabotage attacks
“What we need is a period of calm to make sure everyone understands what the other side is thinking and most of all we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearisation.
“Because if Iran becomes a nuclear power its neighbours are likely to want to become nuclear powers, this is already the most unstable region in the world and this would be a massive step in the wrong direction.”
Mr Hunt spoke hours after Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced that four of their oil tankers were damaged in a “sabotage attack” off the east coast of the UAE, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz waterway.
The two Arab states, who are fierce opponents of Iran, did not say who was responsible for the attack nor provide any evidence of damage to the ships.
“This criminal act poses a serious threat to the security and safety of maritime traffic, which reflects negatively on regional and international peace and security,” the Saudi foreign ministry said.
The White House began warning last week that it was picking up signals that Iran was preparing to attack US interests in the Middle East.
Although the US has not made its evidence public, American officials said they were concerned that Iran might try to fire ballistic missiles off of ships at US vessels in the region and that Shia militias in Iraq might mount attacks.
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The US ordered an aircraft carrier and a task force of B-52 bombers and then later reinforced them with a Patriot battery, designed to shoot down incoming missiles, and an assault ship carrying US Marines.
The US already has a wide array of forces in the region, including a vast Air Force base in Qatar and a large naval facility in neighbouring Bahrain, which houses the US 5th Fleet. The newly deployed B-52s began their first patrols over the weekend.
The military build up has been accompanied by a flurry of diplomatic activity. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, abruptly changed his travel plans Sunday to fly to Brussels to meet European diplomats about Iran.
Skeptics of the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran have warned that US officials may be hoping for an opportunity for military confrontation as American sanctions have so far failed to force Iran to capitulate.
“Some in Washington and the region would welcome, or try to provoke, a confrontation with Tehran in an effort to achieve what sanctions have failed at so far – cutting Iran down to size,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran programme at the International Crisis Group, told the New Yorker.
Charles Hollis, a former UK diplomat who worked in Iran and is now managing director of the Falanx Assynt consultancy, said he thought that was less likely.
“I think you would get a stronger signal from Washington if it were a deliberate policy. I don’t think the US policy establishment as a whole has an agenda for war,” he said.
European diplomats urged Mr Pompeo to avoid any escalation that could lead to war and said they remained united in their support for the 2015 nuclear agreement, which the US withdrew from last year.
“We do not want it to come to a military conflict,” said Heiko Mass, the German foreign minister.
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