Oil Tankers Attacked Near Entrance To Persian Gulf, Escalating Tensions
Expanding on events that have been going on for months, two oil tankers were attacked today near the entrance to the Persian Gulf
In what could be a disturbing development in an already dangerous part of the world, two oil tankers bound for Japan were attacked in the Gulf of Oman just outside the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz at the southern end of the Persian Gulf:
LONDON — Apparent attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday forced their crews to abandon ship and left one vessel ablaze, a month after four tankers were damaged in the same area, raising alarms about the security of a vital passageway for much of the world’s petroleum.
The early morning incidents, which two shipping companies involved and the White House described as attacks, elevated tensions in a region already unsettled by the escalating conflict between the United States and some of its allies, and Iran.
Frictions have become so intense that other nations have pleaded with all sides to stay calm rather than provoke an all-out war. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who was visiting Iran and trying to bridge the gap between Iran and the United States, warned of the risk of stumbling into military conflict.
Last month, Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, said, “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the House press secretary, said Thursday: “The president has been briefed on the attack on ships in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation.”
It was not immediately clear how the most recent incidents unfolded or who was involved, just as the circumstances of last month’s attacks remain murky. The two ships that were struck on Thursday appeared to have been more seriously damaged than those hit in May.
Iranian officials have denied any involvement in attacks on tankers. But in late May, John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, that Iran was “almost certainly” responsible for the earlier attacks, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed, saying that they were “efforts by the Iranians to raise the price of crude oil.”
Officials of other countries have been more cautious about publicly assigning blame. The United Arab Emirates described the attacks as state-sponsored, but did not specify a state.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., both American allies, have long been at odds with Iran, and are backing opposing sides in the civil war in Yemen. But the sharpest recent changes have been in the United States-Iran relationship.
Mr. Trump has repudiated the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, and he recently moved to cut off Iran’s remaining oil exports and sent additional military forces to the region. In response, Iran recently threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial access to the Persian Gulf, and has said it may reduce its compliance with parts of the nuclear pact.
The Houthi faction in Yemen, backed by Iran, has launched attacks recently on targets in Saudi Arabia, including oil pipelines, fueling fears of a wider conflict.
One of the ships disabled on Thursday, the Front Altair, owned by the Norwegian shipping company Frontline, was burning and its crew had evacuated the vessel, according to a shipping industry official who was not authorized to speak for the record. CPC Corporation, the Taiwan oil company that had chartered the ship to carry naphtha, a petroleum product, confirmed that it had been attacked, and a company official told Reuters that a torpedo was suspected.
The Norwegian newspaper VG quoted a Frontline spokesman as saying that its ship was on fire and that all 23 crew members had been rescued. Maritime tracking websites say the Front Altair, registered in the Marshall Islands, had left the Emirati port of Ruwais, headed to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan.
The other tanker, the Panamanian-flagged Kokuka Courageous, was carrying methanol, and the Iranian state news media reported that it, too, was on fire. It was reportedly headed from the Saudi port of Al Jubail to Singapore. Both the ship’s owner and its operator said that all 21 crew members had abandoned ship and were later rescued by a nearby vessel.
“We received a report that our ship was attacked,” Yutaka Katada, the president of the ship’s operator, Kokuka Sangyo, said at a news conference. The crew, all Filipinos, “kept trying to avoid the attacks, but again received an attack three hours later. So crew members left the ship by lifeboats.”
The tanker’s owner, Bernhard Shulte, said in a statement that it had sustained damage to the hull on the starboard side and that one crew member had been slightly injured. The ship ” is not in any danger of sinking,” the company said. “The cargo of methanol is intact.”
Iran’s state news media said the two tankers had been hit by explosions, and confirmed the rescue of 44 mariners. The news channel IRINN said a rescue team from the southern Iranian province of Horozgan had picked up the crew of the ship carrying the Panamanian flag.
Japan’s Trade Ministry said both ships were carrying “Japan-related cargo.”
The potential for a situation like this to spin out of control cannot be underestimated. A significant portion of the world’s crude oil supply, and nearly all of the oil from oil-producing nations that border the Persian Gulf pass through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. Any disruption in that flow of oil would have a significant impact on world oil markets as well as increase tensions in the area. This is why one of the primary missions of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which has a large base in Bahrain, is to ensure that the Straits remain open. In the past, this area has been a point at which American forces and Iranian forces, specifically the small navy run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have clashed in the past in minor skirmishes that have, thankfully, not exploded into something more significant. If the area becomes even more of a flashpoint, then the potential for a confrontation that spins out of control will increase significantly.
To be honest, it’s hard to believe that the Iranian government is behind the apparent uptick in attacks on shipping in the area. For one thing, now that Iran is back in the international oil business thanks to the JCPOA it is arguably as much in their interest to keep the Strait of Hormuz and the surrounding area open to the free flow of shipping as it would be in the interest of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, and the United States. Additionally, it seems hard to believe that the Iranians would launch an attack on tankers that are ultimately headed to Japan, or anywhere else for that matter while hosting the Japanese Prime Minister. This leaves open the possibility, of course, that the attacks could have been conducted by rogue forces inside Iran who are opposed to the JCPOA and the opening to the West. It is also possible that the attacks are the work of forces in Yemen nominally allied with Iran that may be interested in turning the war in Yemen into a wider conflict or some other force who may have an interest in upping the tensions between Iran and the United States. Whoever is responsible, though, the fact that the attacks are continuing suggests that they are well-organized and that we may not have seen the end of them.