Two Saudi oil tankers attacked in the Persian Gulf amid rising Iran tensions
The tankers were subjected to an “act of sabotage” early Sunday morning in waters off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to a statement from Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi minister for energy, industry and mineral resources, carried by the official Saudi news agency.
Saudi Arabia did not say who was responsible for the attack, which caused no casualties or oil spill but inflicted “significant damage” on the vessels, the statement said.
It coincides with a surge in U.S.-Iranian tensions after the United States said last week that it had received intelligence that Iran was planning some kind of attack against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
In response to the threat, the Pentagon dispatched naval reinforcements to the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of B-52 bombers, prompting warnings from Iran that it was prepared to retaliate if it is attacked.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the shipping attack as “alarming and regrettable” and said it would have a “negative effect” on shipping safety and maritime security, according to the Iranian ISNA news agency.
Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, hinted that the sabotage may have been carried out as part of a conspiracy to ignite conflict in the region. He cautioned against what he called “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security” and called for an inquiry.
Iran also announced last week that it would pull out of parts of the nuclear deal and resume uranium enrichment, raising concern among the accord’s remaining signatories that it will soon collapse altogether.
Speaking in Brussels, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risk that the tensions could trigger an unintended conflict in the region.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” he told reporters, ahead of a European Union meeting later Monday about ways to salvage the deal.
The spike in tensions follows the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions waivers from eight countries that import Iranian oil, in a bid to bring Iran’s exports down to “zero,” according to U.S. officials. Iranian imports had already plunged after U.S. sanctions were reimposed in November, following the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord. The expiration of the waivers is expected to inflict further pain on Iran’s already reeling economy.
It was not immediately clear whether the two Saudi vessels that were attacked were among four ships that the United Arab Emirates had said on Sunday were sabotaged in the same area. The Saudi statement said that the tankers were positioned off the emirate of Fujairah at the time and that one was on its way to the Saudi port of Ras Tanura to be loaded with oil for delivery to the United States.
The U.S. maritime authority reissued a warning early Monday that Iran might seek to target commercial shipping in the area, the Associated Press reported.
“Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz,” said an earlier warning issued last week. “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait or the Persian Gulf.”