20 May 2019

The Suspected Sabotage of Oil Tankers Puts the Persian Gulf on High Alert

What Happened

There are more questions than answers following an incident in the Gulf of Oman that could raise the stakes in a battle pitting Iran against its regional adversaries and the United States. On May 12, four oil tankers off the coast of the Emirati port of Fujairah suffered damage in what the United Arab Emirates has described as sabotage. A day later, Saudi Arabia confirmed an attack against two of its tankers, Amjad and Al Marzoqah. The other tankers involved included the Norwegian-flagged Andre Victoria, as well as a small Emirati bunkering tanker that had been supplying the Andre Victoria. 

The Big Picture

The Persian Gulf has been on a heightened state of alert since the United States declined to extend sanctions waivers for Iran's oil customers. Tehran announced it would suspend two of its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and Washington announced it was sending a carrier group and more bombers to the region. We are watching closely for any incident that could provoke a conflict, up to and including a military strike by the United States and its regional allies against Iran — or vice versa. No evidence has yet emerged that Iran sabotaged four vessels in the United Arab Emirates on May 12, but given that it has threatened tankers traversing the Persian Gulf in response to U.S. actions, it is an incident worth watching closely.

But details on what, exactly, transpired remain scant. Pictures have shown damage to the Emirati tanker, which may now be leaking bunkering fuel, while the Andre Victoria appears to have suffered damage to its hull from what looks like a possible collision. Authorities have yet to reveal the extent of the damage to the Saudi tankers, although initial reports suggested Al Marzoqah's main engine caught fire.
Who Did It?

At this point, officials have yet to provide definitive proof that foul play actually occurred. If further investigation, or emerging evidence, does point to an attack of some kind, the ultimate identity of the culprits is likely to define the response to the incident.

As of yet, no one has claimed responsibility. Nevertheless, the incident occurred amid an increase in tensions between Iran and the United States in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned that it could target U.S. assets in the Middle East after Washington turned the screws on Tehran with new sanctions.

If perpetrators did sabotage the vessels, the attackers could — apart from being from Iran — be linked to piracy groups or terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. In fact, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an organization linked to the global jihadist network, staged the last bombing of a tanker in the region in 2010 when it attacked the Japanese tanker M Star.
Iran: A "Worrisome" Incident

Since the incident, Iran's response has been reserved, as the country's officials have sought to distance Tehran from the apparent sabotage. The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee tweeted on May 12 that the incidents indicated the fragility of Persian Gulf security, while the head of Iran's Foreign Ministry depicted the incidents as "worrisome."

If Emirati authorities tie the incident to Tehran, it would raise questions about whether harder-line elements in the Islamic republic are attempting to up the ante regionally.

On one hand, Iran would have reason to harass vessels around its territory, especially those belonging to the United States and foes like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to send a message of resolve in the face of Washington's punishing economic and military pressure. (Just last week, the United States moved a carrier strike group into the Persian Gulf.) On the other hand, it doesn't make strategic sense for Iran to target European vessels at a time when it is desperately seeking to retain the Continent's political and economic support, particularly as Tehran has issued a 60-day deadline to the other signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to deliver on what it promised Iran as part of the nuclear deal. If Emirati authorities tie the incident to Iran, it would raise questions about Iranian command and control and whether harder-line elements in the Islamic republic are attempting to up the ante at a time when President Hassan Rouhani and his more moderate camp are seeking to steer clear of such a confrontation.

UAE: Responding With Caution

The United Arab Emirates has requested that the U.S. Navy help investigate the incidents, but the country has otherwise refused to speculate on the instigator or the cause of the incidents. The secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council called the sabotage a "serious escalation" and "irresponsible act." The Emirati economy depends on the safety of shipping along its coastlines, and Fujairah is a major regional bunkering center. Protecting Fujairah's reputation for safety could account for the decision of the Emirati media to downplay the incident and avoid speculation on the culprits or the cause. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have been largely cautious in their responses so far, with neither seeking to highlight the issue further in the media or pin the event on Iran.
U.S.: Awaiting the White House

On May 12, the U.S. Maritime Administration said details regarding the incident had not been confirmed, adding that vessels should exercise caution in the area. At the same time, the authority also reissued a warning — originally posted on May 9 — that Iran could target commercial sea traffic. Meanwhile, the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet has yet to issue a public response. The U.S. political response — particularly as to whether Washington directly attempts to tie the incident to Iran — will provide clues as to Washington's coming course of action given that the United States is already searching for justification for a potential military response to Iranian aggression.
Israel: More Fuel for the Fire?

Israel, an arch foe of Iran, has yet to directly react to the incidents. But if Iran or an Iran-linked entity is deemed responsible (either through suspicion or direct evidence), Israel is likely to respond with harsh rhetoric and play up the incident in its anti-Iran propaganda campaign in an attempt to build a stronger case in Washington for yet more pressure against Tehran. For the moment, all parties are reacting with caution — but that could change rapidly as more information comes to light.

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