Oil Tanker Attacks Take a U-Turn as Explosions Hit Iranian Vessel

Middle Eastern rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been indulged in a “hit the critical area” conflict, where the oil facilities of the two countries usually become a major target. However, the latest attack on the Islamic Republic’s oil tanker has not yet been attributed to any of its rival, including Riyadh.

On Friday, an Iranian state-owned vessel was hit by two missiles, as it headed to Syria on the Red Sea off the Saudi port. However, the country, which is usually aggressive about blaming tensions on the United States or Saudi Arabia, refrained from accusing anyone for the Sabiti tanker attack. The National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), owner of the vessel, denied reports that the attack originated from the Kingdom.

“Iran is avoiding haste, carefully examining what has happened and probing facts,” spokesman Ali Rabei was heard saying on the state news agency, IRNA. “An appropriate response will be given to the designers of this cowardly attack, but we will wait until all aspects of the plot are clarified.”

Tehran claimed that two explosions rocked the Sabiti tanker at a gap of 20 minutes, at 5 a.m. and again at 5:20 a.m., while it was 60 miles away from the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. The blast that hit the hull caused an oil spill from two tanks into the sea, which was reportedly halted later. Besides, the vessel was in a stable condition and the crew members were also safe.

Late on Friday, Iran’s state media reported that the ship was heading back to Tehran. According to an analysis from data firm Refinitiv, the vessel was carrying about 1 million barrels of crude oil. The explosions caused a spike in the price of Brent crude oil up to more than 2 per cent in trade, but later dropped down to under $60 a barrel.

Where Iran didn’t blame anyone, Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it had no involvement in the explosions. “We don’t engage in such behavior,” said the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir. “Besides, there are conflicting reports about this,” he said, referring to the contradicting Iranian claims of the attack, of initially describing it as a missile attack and then subsequently withdrawing the accusation.

The attack on Iran’s oil tanker came nearly a month after the drone strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The attack on Saudi Aramco’s facility at Abqaiq and Hijra Khurais was claimed by the Yemen’s Houthi rebels, but the US pointed fingers at Iran.

Tensions in the Middle East have emerged since the American President Donald Trump imposed sanctions against Iran’s crude oil shipments and unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear pact with world powers. On the other hand, Iranian officials have lately been warning that no one in the region would be able to sell their oil, if they couldn’t.

The regional conflict over oil, however, remains an indirect affair, where no proof against the rivals have been provided yet. First of such attack was reported in May, when two vessels of Saudi were subjected to “sabotage operations” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah Port.

Since then, a series of attacks on the oil tankers have taken place in the Persian Gulf. Most of these attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of all oil is exported, have been associated to Iran by the US and partially Saudi. Denying its involvement in these attacks, Iran took varied moves amidst the soaring tensions.

The Islamic Republic shot down a US military surveillance drone, and seized a number of oil tankers, including British commercial vessel, HMS Montrose.

Friday’s attack on Iran’s vessel revived the instability, bringing another crucial shipping route, Red Sea, under a risk. “This latest incident, if confirmed to be an act of aggression, is highly likely to be part of the wider narrative of deteriorating relations between Saudi and the U.S. and Iran,” private maritime security firm Dryad Maritime warned.

“It is likely that the region … will face another period of increasing maritime threats, as the Iranian and Saudi geopolitical stand-off continues,” it added.

Although Iran stopped short of accusing Saudi Arabia of the oil tanker attack and the Kingdom denied its involvement, the explosions signal an upcoming turmoil in the region. Where the US is standing firm with the Arab Kingdom, Iran has also been putting a strong foot in the conflict. Several attacks on the oil infrastructure are taking place, no proof against any of the culprit has yet been presented, and the instability still continues.

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