US diplomats warned commercial airliners flying over the wider Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman of the risk of being “misidentified” amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran.
The warning relayed by US diplomatic posts from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) underlined the risks the current tensions pose to a region crucial to global air travel.
It also came as Lloyd’s of London warned of increasing risks to maritime shipping in the region.
Concerns about a possible conflict have flared since the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran that has seen the US order nonessential diplomatic staff out of Iraq.
US President Donald Trump has since sought to soften his tone.
‘Oil tanker sabotage’
Meanwhile, authorities allege that a sabotage operation targeted four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline.
Saudi Arabia directly blamed Iran for the drone assault, and a local newspaper linked to the Al Saud royal family called on Thursday for the US to launch “surgical strikes” on Tehran.
On Saturday, sources told Reuters news agency that Exxon Mobil evacuated all its foreign staff members out of Iraq’s West Qurna 1 oilfield and is flying them out to Dubai.
This all takes root in Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the US 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 weapons-grade levels.
Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the US and Israel fear its programme could allow it to build atomic bombs.
The order relayed on Saturday by US diplomats in Kuwait and the UAE came from an FAA Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) published late on Thursday in the US.
It said that all commercial aircraft flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman needed to be aware of “heightened military activities and increased political tension”.
This presents “an increasing inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations due to the potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the warning said.
It also said aircraft could experience interference with its navigation instruments and communications jamming “with little to no warning”.
The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman have become a major gateway for East-West travel in the aviation industry. Dubai International Airport in the UAE, home to Emirates airlines, is the world’s busiest for international travel, while long-haul carriers Etihad and Qatar Airways also operate in the Persian Gulf.
US Navy personnel aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln [Jeff Sherman/AP]
All three airlines, as well as Oman Air, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday about the warning.
For now, air travel in the Gulf remains unchanged, aviation analyst Alex Macheras told Al Jazeera.
“There are no restrictions affecting airlines operating to or from the area,” Macheras said.
“The region is home to many of the world’s safest airlines, and airlines ensure flight crews are kept up to date with the latest NOTAM updates, which outline any airspace changes to the region, or anything they should be cautious of.
“Airlines will also ensure flight crew are very responsive to air traffic controllers, as normal, in order to avoid any misidentification through a lack of communication.”
Iran Air flight 655
The warning appeared rooted in what happened 30 years ago after Operation Praying Mantis, a daylong naval battle in the Gulf between US forces and Iran during the country’s long 1980s war with Iraq.
On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes chased Iranian speedboats that allegedly opened fire on a helicopter into Iranian territorial waters, then allegedly mistook an Iran Air passenger jet, flight 655 heading to Dubai, for an Iranian F-14.