In Depth

Who is attacking Gulf oil tankers?

Tension at the world’s oil choke point could be the match that sets the Middle East alight

An international investigation into attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last month has concluded that a “state actor” is the most likely culprit.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway told the United Nations Security Council there are “strong indications that the four attacks were part of a sophisticated and coordinated operation carried out with significant operational capacity”.

Of the commercial ships targeted in the blasts, on 12 May, “one was flying a UAE flag, two were tankers owned by Saudi Arabia, and the fourth was a Norwegian tanker”, reports CNN

Both the US and Saudi Arabia have pointed the finger at Iran, but the investigation report does not identify any state as the alleged aggressor.

Tehran has denounced the attack and denied involvement. A senior Iranian lawmaker told Reuters that “saboteurs from a third country” could be behind the sabotage and that the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile. 

According to the newly released investigation report, the attacks on the vessels, in UAE territorial waters 12 nautical miles off the emirate of Fujairah, required a “high degree of coordination” and advanced technical and intelligence capabilities.

Divers are believed to have attached limpet mines that blew up the tankers in an assault intended to “incapacitate the ships without sinking them or detonating their cargoes”, the report says.

There were no casualties, but Saudi Arabia says that two of its ships suffered "significant" damage.

As The Times notes, attacks on maritime traffic in the Gulf “have fuelled tensions already heightened by the unravelling Iran nuclear deal and Washington’s moves beefing up its military presence in the region, citing unspecified threats from Iran”. 

US national security adviser John Bolton has warned of a “very strong response from the US” against the Islamic republic and its proxies in the event of further attacks in the Persian Gulf.

Although “it is unclear why Iran would carry out a relatively low-level attack on the multinational tankers”, observers have speculated that “it could have been to send a signal to forces ranged against it that it is capable of disrupting shipping there without triggering a war”, says the BBC

Oil prices rose by nearly 2% immediately after the attack, amid fears that the vital choke point for the world’s oil supply could provide the match that sets the region alight.

In April, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatened to “close” the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil supply passes, if it was prevented from using the waterway. Days later, relations between the US and Iran hit a new low when Tehran passed a new law declaring any US troops stationed in the Middle East “terrorists”.

The US Maritime Administration then issued an advisory warning that “Iran or its proxies” could be targeting commercial vessels and oil production infrastructure in the region.

The US “has bolstered its military presence in the Gulf with additional troops, bombers and an aircraft carrier group”, reports the Financial Times. The heightened deployment is intended to deter further incidents, US officials have said. 

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