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Attacks on 4 oil tankers ratchet up worry of new war in Middle East

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: rhetoric flowing out of Washington and Tehran has observers worried about a possible military showdown; with gun violence on the rise in Toronto, there's a clash over what should be called 'gang' activity.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

The Al Marzoqah tanker is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, on Monday. The ship is one of four tankers attacked by unknown assailants near the port city of Fujairah on Sunday. (Satish Kumar/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • The increasingly bellicose rhetoric flowing out of Washington and Tehran has many observers concerned about the possibility of a military showdown.
  • With gun violence on the rise in Toronto, there's a clash over what should be termed "gang" activity.
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Uncertainty around Iran

The pictures show evidence of a collision — violent enough to punch a hole in the oil tanker's stern, right at the waterline.

The question now is whether the dent is big enough to provoke a war.

Early yesterday morning, somebody or something rammed four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the port city of Fujairah. No one was injured, and all of the vessels — two Saudi ships, another from Norway, and the fourth as yet unidentified — remain afloat with their cargo intact.

The damage seems limited, but that hasn't stopped the Saudi government from concluding that its tankers were deliberately targeted, and predicting that the "acts of sabotage" will have serious ramifications for both regional and international peace and security.

The damage to the Andrea Victory tanker crumpled its hull. (Satish Kumar/Reuters)

The Kingdom hasn't said who it believes might be behind the "criminal acts," although the finger of suspicion is falling on Iran.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an advisory to ships in the region, citing an "increased possibility" that Iran or its proxies could take action against America and its allies by "targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers."

The warning came in the wake of the sudden deployment of a U.S. Navy carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf last week, amid mounting White House warnings about aggressive Iranian activity.

And this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an emergency trip to Brussels to discuss the tanker incidents with his European counterparts.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves after a meeting at the Europa building in Brussels on Monday. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Iran has expressed concern about the shipping attacks and says it is seeking further details, with a spokesman for its foreign ministry suggesting the whole thing has the hallmark of a "conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers."

The increasingly bellicose rhetoric flowing out of Washington and Tehran these days has many observers concerned about the possibility of a military showdown.

"We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side," Jeremy Hunt, the U.K. Foreign Secretary, said today, calling for a "period of calm" and some serious second-thought.

Iran is desperate for relief from the U.S. sanctions that have crippled its economy and threaten to choke off its oil exports.

Last week, President Hassan Rouhani served notice that his country will again begin enriching uranium unless the Europeans, China and Russia can find a way to blunt the Trump administration's punitive measures.

And over the past year, the Iranians have repeatedly threatened to blockade the narrow Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, should push come to shove, a move that would effectively cut off the flow of oil from the Middle East to the rest of the world.

But yesterday's tanker attacks took place 140 kilometres south of that strategic pinch point, far outside of Iranian waters.

The fuzzy details of the tanker incidents, along with the largely unspecified Iranian "threats" that the Trump administration keeps talking up, are setting off alarm bells in some corners.

"Is Trump yet another U.S. president provoking a war?" the New Yorker is asking today, noting the country's long history — from the Spanish-American War to Vietnam and beyond — of ginning-up small confrontations to justify broader conflicts.

Other publications, like Foreign Policy and the Washington Post, are more focused on the part that National Security Advisor John Bolton is playing, noting his key role in steering the United States into a war with Iraq's Saddam Hussein back in 2003 over some non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, an F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft takes off from the flight deck the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf on Friday night. The aircraft carrier strike group is being deployed to the Persian Gulf to counter an alleged but still-unspecified threat from Iran. (Seaman Michael Singley, U.S. Navy via AP)

Bolton is more than hawkish on Iran too, having penned an infamous New York Times opinion piece in 2015 that argued that sanctions and negotiations were useless, and that the only way to stop Tehran from getting the bomb was to bomb Tehran.

He has already sought strike options, alarming the Pentagon this past January by asking it to draw up plans for an attack on Iran in response to three mortar rounds being lobbed into Baghdad's green zone by Tehran-backed insurgents.

But if Bolton is truly trying to start another war, he won't exactly enjoy the element of surprise.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, tweeted at Donald Trump yesterday, drawing the U.S. president's attention to some of Bolton's past writings, including a 2017 article entitled "How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal."

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Gangs and guns

With gun violence on the rise in Toronto, there's a clash over what should be termed "gang" activity, reporter Terence McKenna writes.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders touched off an interesting debate about the power of certain words when he said that close to 90 per cent of gun-homicides in his city were "gang-related."

For members of the group Mothers for Peace in the Regent Park public-housing neighbourhood, many of whom have lost children to gun violence, "gang" is a loaded word.

"We look at a child as a human being, we then label them with all kinds of labels," says Sureya Ibrahim. "Okay, he's in a gang ... does that mean he needs to die? If it is a gang or not, I believe 100 per cent that it's preventable. Why don't we plan prevention mechanisms, to make sure they don't involve themselves? These are children we're talking about."

Former gang member Marcell Wilson runs prevention programs in Toronto at to keep young people away from gun violence. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Former gang member Marcell Wilson runs one of the prevention programs to keep young people away from gangs. He says he grew up as a "soldier" in a large internationally connected gang called Tiny Toons that made money from drug trafficking. He, too, is wary of using the word "gang" to refer to a small informal circle of friends that might dabble in illegal activities.

At the same time, he is shocked by the random gun violence characterized as "gang-related" these days in Toronto.

"The culture of violence has changed … in my day you couldn't just walk into a neighbourhood and open fire and hit two kids, possibly. You know, there would be internal retribution for that. No need for police or outside help there, we would discipline our own. I guess it's an old-school way that doesn't seem to resonate with this generation."

The Toronto Police now seem more reticent to apply the "gang" label at press conferences about the latest shootings, but Inspector Don Belanger says we have to be clear about what qualifies as a gang.

"Anytime you have a group of people who work together to make money doing illegal activity — drug activity, firearms trafficking, prostitution-related activity — when they're working together for the purpose of making money by illegal means, that's a gang."

Belanger ran the Toronto Police unit that's still called "Guns and Gangs."

- Terence McKenna

  • Terence McKenna's series on gun-violence continues tonight and tomorrow on The National. Watch it on CBC Television and streamed online

More from The National's series on guns in Canada:

A few words on ... 

An unexpected delivery.

Quote of the moment

"There is still probable cause to suspect Mr. Assange committed rape. As Mr. Assange is still incarcerated in the U.K., the conditions exist to seek extradition."

- Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden's Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, tells a Stockholm press conference that she is reopening a sexual assault case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and will seek his extradition after he has served his 50-week prison term in Britain for jumping bail.

Vice-chief prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson speaks at a press conference in Stockholm on Monday. (Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency via AP)

What The National is reading

  • WestJet to be sold in $5 billion deal (CBC)
  • China retaliates with $60 Billion in tariffs on U.S. goods (Washington Post)
  • Sweden reopens rape case against Julian Assange (CBC)
  • Sri Lanka imposes new curfew as mosques attacked (Reuters)
  • Trump buildings face millions in climate fines under new New York rules (Guardian)
  • Vietnam culls 1.2 million pigs as African swine fever spreads (Japan Times)
  • Three German hotel guests found dead from crossbow bolts (BBC)
  • Zimbabwe rakes in $2.7 million selling baby elephants to China (Africanews)

Today in history

Vancouver has a drug crisis — at least 2,000 heroin users whose addictions are driving petty crime in the city's downtown. But what really worries Jack Webster and CBC TV's Close-Up are the recent spike in overdose deaths — three in just three weeks, compared to four in all of 1958. Sixty years on, the problem has worsened exponentially as users turn to more powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, Vancouver had a record 387 overdose deaths, and the province as a whole, 1,500.

Dealing with drug addiction in Vancouver

3 years ago
Duration 20:23
Jack Webster profiles heroin addiction in Vancouver: the addicts and the police, doctors and social workers who try to help them.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.