Thursday’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman has brought the United States of America and Iran on a collision course, 16 years after the US invaded Iraq in its “quest” for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

The dense black smoke that billowed from the tankers even 24 hours after the strike conveyed a pregnant message ~ the risk of a war in the region is now dangerously real. It is more than purely coincidental that the blitzkrieg, that is bound to dislocate the supply of oil and gas, has occurred during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Iran.

There is little doubt that Mr Shinzo Abe is playing the role of an honest broker between Washington and Tehran. It was a geostrategic variant of what the subcontinent would call a surgical strike. Notably, the vessels with cargo for Japan were attacked when Mr Abe met the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a visit that is intended to help ease US-Iran tensions.

On closer reflection, the attack on a Norwegian vessel and another tanker in the Gulf of Oman has happened close to the Strait of Hormuz ~ a chokepoint for the global oil and gas trade, indeed the bedrock of a thriving maritime economy. In comparison to the situation a year ago, the geopolitical scenario today is as disturbing as it is surprising.

The US has jettisoned an international nuclear deal with which Iran has been abiding ever since it was signed by Barack Obama in 2015. Donald Trump, it hardly needs to be underlined, has been allergic to any breakthrough effected by his predecessor. Encouraged by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the US has ramped up the pressure on Iran.

The sanctions have strangled its economy though an economic reprisal can scarcely bring a regime to its knees. Washington has emitted other threatening signals even as it says it will negotiate. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the billowing smoke from the tankers are suggestive of the gathering war clouds.

There has been a hike in global oil prices following the attacks, and Iran may not be the only country to suffer from the latest tension. The US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran has strengthened hardliners in Iran and undermined moderates, led by President Hassan Rouhani. In its obsessive concern with Brexit, Europe has not been able to revive the agreement though the Western powers are uniformly agreeable.

Unmistakable is the uncompromising tone of Ayatollah Khamenei’s tweets to Mr Abe. Chiefly, the supreme leader is explicit on the point that President Trump is not a person who deserves an exchange of messages; second, the US could not stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons; finally, the US cannot be trusted. The blaze on Front Altair and another tanker could ignite a wider conflagration in the region, the devastating consequences of which will not be confined to Iran.