By Zak Doffman
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 ships were damaged near the Strait of Hormuz, a month after four tankers were sabotaged in the region in attacks attributed by the U.S. and its allies to Iranian forces or proxies.
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.”
Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif tweeted that “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” drawing links between the “reported attacks on Japan-related tankers” while Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe for “extensive and friendly talks,” implying that the attack was executed by others and was intended to cause issues for Iran. Zarif has accused Israel and Saudi Arabia of such false flag activities in the past.
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.
These latest tanker attacks will escalate already rising tensions in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Abha International Airport. Responding to that attack, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said “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.”
According to the Arab News, “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’.”
Prince Khalid bin Salman added that “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. The continuation of the Iranian regime’s aggression and reckless escalation, whether directly or through its militias, will result in grave consequences.”
With the airport attack being attributed to Iranian proxies, the question now is whether the same will be true for this latest tanker attack and, if so, what response that might prompt in the tinderbox region. The challenge for Iran is the extent to which it exercises genuine control over its regional proxies. And, as a result, the risk in the region remains that with tensions sky-high and military resources ramping up, the autonomous actions of a proxy might trigger a more serious skirmish. As I’ve written before, it would be foolish to think that anyone is in control of what happens next.