Mystery deepens in 'sabotage' of oil tankers in Persian Gulf

Conflicting reports and current tensions in the Gulf obscure knowledge of the incident.

By
May 13, 2019 15:58
4 minute read.
NIMITZ-CLASS aircraft

THE NIMITZ-CLASS aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS John C. Stennis plod their way through the Persian Gulf in 2012. ‘Obama’s aversion to launching a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites is the result of America’s bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq and Obama’s herculean effor. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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As tensions rose over the weekend between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf, several vessels were “sabotaged” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Both Iranian media and the UAE reported the incident, but 24 hours after it happened, much of what occurred was still shrouded in mystery, with allegations of “explosions” and questions about how severe the “sabotage” actually was.


The Saudi energy minister confirmed that two of its oil tankers were targeted in a “sabotage attack.” It took place as the tankers were “on their way to the Arabian Gulf” via the Emirate of Fujairah, the statement said. The UAE said that in total four boats were damaged. The UAE’s The National claimed that “Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions.”
The same reports in the UAE said the tankers had been on their way to the US after being loaded with Saudi oil. No one was hurt, the UAE said. 


Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see the incident as a dangerous threat to the safety of navigation. But what is the actual threat? What actually happened? What do we know? Saudi Arabian energy minister Khalid al-Falih did discuss the attack, indicating that the kingdom sees it as a threat to freedom of navigation in the Gulf.


The Iranians are also warning of conspiracies involving “foreign” players. Iran’s Press TV speculated that the sabotage might have been due to drones from Yemen or even the US “dropping bombs to ignite the region.” Tensions between the US and Iran escalated in recent days with Iranian officials threatening the US and the US sending a variety of forces to the region, including bolstering its aircraft carrier strike force in the Gulf. The US has warned that Iran or its allies could target ships in the region.


Conflicting reports appear to provide contradictory stories. Pro-Iranian media initially claimed that there had been explosions and a fire at the Fujairah tanker terminal. But later reports about the “sabotage” downplayed what had happened and pointed to something occurring at sea in the Gulf of Oman, either on the way to Fujairah or merely passing the area at sea. Fujairah is situated on the Gulf of Oman around 10 kilometers from the Oman border. Ships that arrive there don’t have to navigate the Strait of Hormuz, they can arrive from the Indian Ocean and then leave without going into the Persian Gulf.


The official UAE statement says that the incident took place “near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, east of Fujairah.” The website Maritime Bulletin notes that “it didn’t happen in port, but on outer anchorage.” A map of oil tankers currently off the coast shows them anchored several kilometers off Fujairah. The site points out that fire boats were not dispatched to aid those tankers, meaning reports of a fire were mistaken. But what is “significant damage” that was apparently inflicted after the “sabotage,” which is what Riyadh says happened?


Let’s look at the timeline. The first reports of “massive explosions” were put online around 11 a.m. on Sunday, first in Lebanese media and then in Sputnik, the Russian news channel. Sputnik claimed that “the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen broadcaster said, citing local media, that several heavy explosions occurred in the port of Fujairah.” The report claimed this happened at around 4 to 7 a.m., that “Seven to 10 oil tankers were in flames.” The next reports in Al-Mayadeen began at around four in the afternoon. By midnight, the channel was holding numerous interviews about the incident. It noted that the UAE denied there had been explosions and discussed whether the incident might lead to a military escalation.


What adds to the mystery is how or why someone would report “explosions” that never happened, now that evidence appears to indicate there were no explosions in the port and that the ships, although damaged, did not blow up. Is it possible that whoever carried out the sabotage also sought to fan the flames of rumors? That would point to a pro-Iranian source, since the initial sources of the information were published in sites that lean toward the Iranian regime. On the other hand, would the countries that are more critical of Iran have a reason to downplay the incident not to increase escalation?


The US, which has played a key role in upping the tensions with Iran, has not leapt on the story to point to Iranian aggression. Does that mean evidence does not point toward Iran or that the US primarily is upping its rhetoric but wants to avoid a real escalation? Any real incident occurring near the oil corridor of the Strait of Hormuz will certainly lead to economic concerns across the globe. So far “sabotage” is the term the victims prefer for what happened to their ships. What precisely happened has not been revealed, which adds to the rumor mill, and tensions, rather than reducing them. Riyadh may be waiting to see what is the best course of action. Bringing reporters aboard would reveal what happened and settle the mystery. For now, Riyadh says the incident is a “criminal act” and threatens navigation.

The incident grew in its international implications when the Norwegian-registered oil tanker MT Andrea Victory reported that it had been damaged as well and had a hole in its hull. More details were not immediately released but the tanker was shown near numerous other tankers around 10 km off the coast off Fujairah int he Gulf of Oman.

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