US warns air­lin­ers against fly­ing over Per­sian Gulf

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JON GAMBRELL

Com­mer­cial air­lin­ers fly­ing over the Per­sian Gulf risk be­ing tar­geted by “mis­cal­cu­la­tion or misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion” from the Ira­nian mil­i­tary amid height­ened ten­sions be­tween the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic and the U.S., Amer­i­can diplo­mats warned Satur­day, even as both Wash­ing­ton and Tehran say they don’t seek war.

The warn­ing re­layed by U.S. diplo­matic posts from the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, though dis­missed by Iran, un­der­scored the risks the cur­rent ten­sions pose to a re­gion crit­i­cal to both global air travel and trade. Oil tankers al­legedly have faced sab­o­tage and Ye­men rebel drones at­tacked a cru­cial Saudi oil pipe­line over the last week.

Mean­while on Satur­day, Iraqi of­fi­cials said ExxonMo­bil Corp. be­gan evac­u­at­ing staff from Basra, and the is­land na­tion of Bahrain or­dered its cit­i­zens out of Iraq and Iran over “the re­cent es­ca­la­tions and threats.”

How­ever, U.S. of­fi­cials have yet to pub­licly ex­plain the threats they per­ceive com­ing from Iran, some two weeks af­ter the White House or­dered an air­craft car­rier and B-52s bombers into the re­gion. The U.S. also has or­dered nonessen­tial staff out of its diplo­matic posts in Iraq.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump since has sought to soften his tone on Iran. Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif also stressed Satur­day that Iran is “not seek­ing war,” com­ments seem­ingly con­tra­dicted by the head of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard, who de­clared an on­go­ing “in­tel­li­gence war” be­tween the na­tions.

This all takes root in Trump’s de­ci­sion last year to with­draw the U.S. from the 2015 nu­clear ac­cord be­tween Iran and world pow­ers and im­pose wide-reach­ing sanc­tions. Iran just an­nounced it would be­gin back­ing away from terms of the deal, set­ting a 60-day dead­line for Europe to come up with new terms or it would be­gin en­rich­ing ura­nium closer to weapon­s­grade lev­els. Tehran long has in­sisted it does not seek nu­clear weapons, though the West fears its pro­gram could al­low it to build atomic bombs.

The order re­layed Satur­day by U.S. diplo­mats in Kuwait and

the UAE came from an FAA No­tice to Air­men pub­lished late Thurs­day in the U.S. It said that all com­mer­cial air­craft fly­ing over the wa­ters of the Per­sian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman needed to be aware of Iran’s fighter jets and weaponry.

“Al­though Iran likely has no in­ten­tion to target civil air­craft, the pres­ence of mul­ti­ple long-range, ad­vanced anti-air­craft­ca­pable weapons in a tense en­vi­ron­ment poses a pos­si­ble risk of mis­cal­cu­la­tion or misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing pe­ri­ods of height­ened po­lit­i­cal ten­sion and rhetoric,” the warn­ing said.

It also said air­craft could ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­fer­ence with its nav­i­ga­tion in­stru­ments and com­mu­ni­ca­tions jam­ming “with lit­tle to no warn­ing.”

The warn­ing comes 30 years af­ter the USS Vin­cennes mis­took an Iran Air com­mer­cial jet­liner for an Ira­nian F-14, shoot­ing it down and killing all 290 peo­ple on­board. That was not lost on Iran’s mis­sion to the United Na­tions, which dis­missed the warn­ing as Amer­ica’s “psy­cho­log­i­cal war against Iran.”

“There has never been a threat or risk to civil­ian air traf­fic in the Per­sian Gulf from Iran,” mis­sion spokesman Alireza Miryousefi told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “One can­not for­get the fact that it was in­deed a U.S. war­ship that wan­tonly tar­geted an Ira­nian civil­ian pas­sen­ger air­craft. … The U.S. has yet to apol­o­gize for that act of ter­ror­ism against Ira­nian civil­ians.”

The Per­sian Gulf has since be­come a ma­jor gate­way for East-West travel in the avi­a­tion in­dus­try. Dubai In­ter­na­tional Air­port in the United Arab Emi­rates, home to Emi­rates, is the world’s busiest for in­ter­na­tional travel, while long-haul car­ri­ers Eti­had and Qatar Air­ways also op­er­ate in the re­gion.

Emi­rates, Eti­had and Qatar Air­ways all said they were aware of the no­tice and their op­er­a­tions were un­af­fected. Oman Air did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Speak­ing in China, where he fin­ished a tour of Asian na­tions who rely on Mideast oil, Zarif told the state-run IRNA news agency that war is not what Iran wants.

“No war will oc­cur as nei­ther are we seek­ing a war nor any­one else has the il­lu­sion of be­ing able to fight with Iran in the re­gion,” Zarif said.

Mean­while, the head of Iran’s para­mil­i­tary Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard re­port­edly said the U.S. and Iran al­ready were in a “fullfledge­d in­tel­li­gence war.” The semi-of­fi­cial Fars news agency also quoted Gen. Hos­sein Salami us­ing 9/11 as a metaphor for Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, de­scrib­ing it Satur­day “like the World Trade Build­ing that col­lapses with a sud­den hit.”

It isn’t just air traf­fic af­fected. Lloyd’s Mar­ket As­so­ci­a­tion Joint War Com­mit­tee added the Per­sian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the United Arab Emi­rates on Fri­day to its list of ar­eas pos­ing higher risk to in­sur­ers. It also ex­panded its list to in­clude the Saudi coast as a risk area.

In Iraq, ExxonMo­bil be­gan evac­u­at­ing staff from Basra amid the ten­sions with Iran, two Iraqi of­fi­cials told The As­so­ci­ated Press. ExxonMo­bil works in Basra at its West Qurna I oil field, which had been shut off for years from Western oil firms over sanc­tions levied on Iraq dur­ing dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein’s time in power.

The U.S. Con­sulate in Basra has been closed since Septem­ber af­ter Amer­i­can of­fi­cials blamed Iran-aligned Shi­ite mili­tias for a rocket at­tack on the post, which is in­side Basra’s air­port com­pound. Basra as a whole has been shaken by vi­o­lent protests in re­cent months over en­trenched cor­rup­tion and poor pub­lic ser­vices, which ear­lier saw Iran’s Con­sulate there over­run and set ablaze.

ExxonMo­bil, based in Irv­ing, Texas, said it de­clined to dis­cuss “op­er­a­tional staffing.”

Iraq is OPEC’s sec­ond­largest Arab pro­ducer, pump­ing some 4.5 mil­lion bar­rels of crude oil a day.

JEFF SHERMAN US Navy via AP

Lt. Ni­cholas Miller and Lt. Sean Ryan launch an F-18 Su­per Hor­net from the USS Abra­ham Lin­coln air­craft car­rier Thurs­day in the Ara­bian Sea. On Satur­day, U.S. diplo­mats warned of risks to com­mer­cial air­lin­ers in the re­gion.

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