U.S. Blames Iran For Tanker Attacks As Saudi Arabia Threatens 'Grave Consequences' (Updated)
On June 13, just a day after a missile fired by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia hit Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people, the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet came to the assistance of two oil tankers in a “reported attack in the Gulf of Oman.”
The Houthi missile attack on the Saudi Arabian airport, some 70 miles from the Yemen border, came early on Wednesday morning. It was the latest in more than 200 recent cross-border missile attacks, albeit with greater impact and casualties. The Arab News reported that ”the day before the attack, a spokesman for the Houthi military warned that the group planned to target every airport in Saudi Arabia and that the coming days would reveal ‘big surprises’.”
Responding to the airport attack, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said “the Iranian regime is the only party in the region that has been pursuing reckless escalation, through the use of ballistic missiles and UAVs to directly target civilian installations and innocent civilians,” adding that “the continuation of the Iranian regime’s aggression and reckless escalation, whether directly or through its militias, will result in grave consequences.”
A day later, and the attack on two ships near the Strait of Hormuz has raised tensions still further with echoes of the attacks on four vessels off the coast of the UAE a month ago, which was attributed by the U.S. and its allies to Iranian forces or proxies.
After this article was first published, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Iran was also responsible for the latest attack. ”It is the assessment of the U.S. government,” he said on Twitter, “that Iran is responsible for today’s attacks in the Gulf of Oman. These attacks are a threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable escalation of tension by Iran.”
The BBC quoted Wu I-fang, a spokesman for Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC Corp, which chartered one of the ships [the Norwegian-owned Front Altair] saying that it was carrying 75,000 tonnes of naphtha and was ‘suspected of being hit by a torpedo’, although this has not been confirmed. Other unverified reports suggested a mine attack.”
The operator of the other ship, the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous, said “its crew had been rescued by a passing vessel… The tanker was carrying methanol and was not in danger of sinking.”
Spokesperson Josh Frey of the 5th Fleet said in a statement: “U.S. naval forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 06:12 local time (08:12 GMT) and a second one at 07:00. US Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance.”
There were varying reports of the vessels being ablaze, and even some reports in the Iranian press that one of the ships had sunk. Both vessels were evacuated and the crews were safe. Oil prices rose 4% in response to reports of the attack
The cargo on at least one of the vessels was linked to Japan, and Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif drew a link between this and the “extensive and friendly talks,” taking place between Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.
Zarif tweeted that “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.” The implication was that a state actor, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, had deliberately targeted the vessels to damage Iran’s standing with Japan. Zarif has accused both countries of pushing the U.S. towards an “unwanted” conflict with Iran and accused Israeli intelligence agency Mossad of falsely attributing the last tanker attack to the regime in Teheran.
The risk of conflict is certainly now higher than it was, and with the latest tanker attacks now being linked to Iran, there will be pressure on the U.S. to respond. Saudi Arabia may do so anyway. In his public statements, Prince Khalid threatened “appropriate measures will be taken to confront and deter these terrorist militias. We will stand against all those that aim to inflict harm on our security and interests, and we will continue to adhere to all international laws and norms to protect regional security and stability.”