Attack on Saudi oil tankers: Tension brews in Middle East

Mysterious attack on Saudi oil tankers: Is US-Iran face-off responsible?
A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. Photo Credit: Reuters
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Fujairah: Saudi Arabia said Monday two of its oil tankers were damaged in mysterious "sabotage attacks" in the Gulf as tensions soared in a region already shaken by a standoff between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world's largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it. The UAE on Monday identified the vessels as two crude oil tankers owned by Saudi shipping firm Bahri, a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker.

The owner of the Norwegian vessel, Thome Ship Management, said the vessel was "struck by an unknown object". Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards.

A Reuters witness said divers were inspecting the ships. The UAE's state news agency said Fujairah port was operating normally. Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, through which most Gulf oil exports pass.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the United States.

Iran, embroiled in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, moved to distance itself on Monday.

Iran's Foreign Ministry called the incidents "worrisome and dreadful" and called for an investigation.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said "saboteurs from a third country" could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

A U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said Iran was a leading candidate for having carried out the attacks but the United States does not have conclusive proof.

"It fits their M.O. (modus operandi)," said the official on condition of anonymity, suggesting Iran's statements distancing itself from the incident were an attempt "to muddy the waters."

SAUDI-OIL-EMIRATES-TANKER

US response

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared information on "escalating" threats from Iran during meetings with EU counterparts and the head of NATO in Brussels, the U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters.

Hook declined to say whether he believed Iran played a role or if Pompeo blamed Iran. He said the UAE had sought U.S. help in the investigation and Washington was glad to provide this.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said in an advisory on Sunday that incidents off Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, had not been confirmed and urged caution.

Last week the Maritime Administration said Iran could target U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways.

Turning up the pressure on Tehran after the United States deployed B-52 bombers and an assault ship to bolster an aircraft carrier in the region, President Donald Trump warned that Iran would "suffer greatly" were it to "do anything" to threaten US interests.

"If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake," Trump warned at the White House. "If they do anything they will suffer greatly."

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan proposed a revamped military plan at a meeting with senior national security aides that would send up to 120,000 US troops to the Middle East were Iran to attack American forces or speed up nuclear weapons development, The New York Times reported.

Other options have been floated, and this one includes the highest number of troops.

Underscoring the international concern, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he used his one-on-one with Pompeo to stress that "we are concerned about the development and the tensions in the region, that we do not want there to be a military escalation".

British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt called for "a period of calm".

And in New York, the United Nations called on all sides to "exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace." Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom's two tankers suffered "significant damage" but there were no casualties or any oil spill.

The Andrea Victory's managers, Thome Group, said the tanker had a hole in the hull area "after being struck by an unknown object on the waterline".

The crew were unharmed and the ship was in no danger of sinking, it said.

"If, and it's an 'IF', there really has been a deliberate attempt to damage these oil tankers, then it's possibly a warning from Iran about the consequences of anybody taking military action against Iranian targets anywhere in the region," said Middle East analyst Neil Partrick.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council - which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE - condemned the incident while Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit denounced "criminal acts"

Oil prices rise

Oil prices rose on world markets on Monday but stocks fell. Almost all the oil exports of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Iran itself, at least 15 million barrels per day, are shipped through the Strait of Hormuz.

Last year, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab strait -- a vital shipping route between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa -- after two of its ships were attacked by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels.

Shiite-majority Iran rivals Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia for influence in the Middle East, with the two taking opposing sides in multiple regional conflicts including in Yemen.

(With inputs from Reuters and PTI.)

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