Part 1: The Tanker Crisis in the Gulf

June 13, 2019
Updated

Tensions between Iran and the outside world have escalated since an attack on four tankers on May 12 near the Strait of Hormuz, which was followed by an attack on two more tankers on June 13. Both attacks occurred in the Gulf of Oman. The Persian Gulf flows through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman. On July 4, the British Royal Navy seized an Iranian tanker carrying oil to Syria. In what seemed like a response, Iranian vessels harassed a British tanker while entering the Straight of Hormuz on July 11. Then on July 19, the IRGC seized two foreign tankers, one British-flagged and the other Liberian-flagged and British-operated. Tehran had threatened to retaliate against British "piracy" after Britain refused to release the Iranian vessel seized off the coast of Gibraltar.

After the second attack, the tanker association INTERTANKO warned about dangers to global energy trade. “Following two attacks on Member vessels this morning, I am extremely worried about the safety of our crews going through the Strait of Hormuz,” said INTERTANKO chairman Paolo d’Amico. “We need to remember that some 30 percent of the world’s (seaborne) crude oil passes through the Straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” he added. Jakob P. Larsen, chief of maritime security for BIMCO, the world’s largest international shipping association, said his industry “views this as an escalation of the situation, and we are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high.”Within hours, the latest attacks pushed oil prices up by as much as four percent.

Tanker map

The two tankers – one owned by Japan and one owned by Norway – were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman. The second ship, the Front Altair, may have been targeted by a torpedo, according to CPC Corp, which chartered the ship. The Front Altair’s crew of 23 were reportedly rescued by the Hyundai Dubai vessel and were transferred to an Iranian navy vessel bound for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Iranian state media claimed that all 44 crew members from both ships were rescued by Iranian teams.

The U.S. Navy deployed in the region offered aid in dealing with the two damaged tankers. “U.S. Naval Forces in the region received two separate distress calls at 6:12 a.m. local (Bahrain) time and a second one at 7:00 a.m. U.S. Navy ships are in the area and are rendering assistance," a U.S. Navy spokesman said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the attacks – and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan – on Iran. He said the U.S. judgement was based on intelligence, “weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” Senior U.S. officials said an unexploded mine was sighted on the side of one of the tankers, according to The Associated Press. They said Washington was considering a plan to provide military escorts for merchant ships. 

 

France condemned the attack. “We have learned that a disturbing incident involving two tankers in the Arabian Sea has occurred today, in the broader context of rising tensions in the region, as evidenced also by the attack on the [Abha airport] in Saudi Arabia yesterday, which we firmly condemned,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told CNN. On June 12, a missile fired by an Iranian-backed militia in Yemen hit the arrivals hall of Abha airport in southwest Saudi Arabia. The kingdom reported 26 people were injured. “We call all the actors concerned, with whom we are in constant contact, to show restraint and de-escalation,” the French statement added. “We also would like to underscore our attachment to the freedom of navigation, which must absolutely be preserved.” German expressed concern too. “An escalation of the situation is dangerous, these are events that could lead to escalation. We need de-escalation and all sides must contribute to that,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a news conference. He had returned from a trip to Iran to discuss the growing tensions with Iran. The British government expressed deep concern and said it was in contact with “local authorities and partners in the region.”

Russia warned against hasty judgments about who might be responsible for the attacks. “Lately we have been seeing a strengthening campaign of political, psychological and military pressure on Iran. We wouldn’t want the events that have just happened, which are tragic and shook the world oil market, to be used speculatively to further aggravate the situation in an anti-Iranian sense,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said according to RIA. Germany, which is one of six nations that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, called the “extremely worrying.”

Reports of the attack coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 13. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the timing was beyond “suspicious.” Abe was on a mission to deescalate tensions between Iran and the United States. But Khamenei told Abe that there was no point in responding to a message conveyed by Abe from President Donald Trump, who visited Japan on May 27. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Khamenei told Abe, according to Iranian state media.

 

The four ships hit on May 12 – two Saudi-flagged, an Emirati-flagged and an Norwegian-flagged – were positioned off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). No injuries were reported. U.S. officials alleged that limpet mines were used and that Iran was the most likely culprit, but they did not publicize definitive evidence. Iran denied any involvement. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway presented preliminary findings of their inquiry to the U.N. Security Council on June 7. They blamed an unidentified state actor “with significant operational capacity” for the attacks. “We believe the responsibility for this attack lies on the shoulders of Iran,” Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al Mouallimi, told reporters after the briefing. 

Saudi Arabia also blamed Iran for the airport attack. "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,” Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said. “The continuation of the Iranian regime’s aggression and reckless escalation, whether directly or through its militias, will result in grave consequences."

The following is a chronology of the tanker attacks and subsequent fallout. 

 

May 12 - Four ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were reportedly sabotaged, including two Saudi Arabian oil tankers. One was due to take a delivery of Saudi oil to the United States. “Fortunately, the attack didn't lead to any casualties or oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels,” said Khalid al-Falih, the kingdom’s energy minister.

The UAE did not speculate on who might have been responsible, but the alleged attack came as the United States warned that “Iran or its proxies” could target maritime traffic in and around the Persian Gulf. Iran was the most likely culprit, according to a U.S. official who spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity, but the United States did not offer conclusive proof. On May 13, Trump warned that Iran “will suffer greatly” if it attacks U.S. interests in the Gulf. “We will see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it’ll be a big mistake,” he told the press. But Iran denied any involvement and accused the Trump administration officials of trying to frame it.

 

May 15 – The New York Times reported that photographs of missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf were the cause of the White House’s increased warnings about the threat from Iran. The concern was that the IRGC would fire them at U.S. naval vessels or disrupt commercial shipping. Intelligence also suggested American troops in Iraq could be targeted by militias with ties to Tehran.

Secretary Pompeo spoke with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id Al Sa'id about “Iranian threats to the Gulf region” in a telephone call. Oman, located next to the Strait of Hormuz, has historically been an interlocutor between Iran and the United States.

May 17 – U.S. officials told NBC News that an intelligence assessment, including photographs and forensics, found it was “highly likely” that Iran or one of its proxies were responsible for the tanker attack.

A Defense Department official and a congressional official told The New York Times that Iran unloaded missiles from at least two small boats in its territorial waters. The move was seen as a de-escalation in tensions.

May 29 – National Security Advisor Bolton told reporters that it was “clear that Iran is behind” the attack on tankers. “There's no doubt in anybody's mind in Washington who's responsible for this,” he added. “Who else would you think is doing it? Someone from Nepal?” Bolton did not provide evidence. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, called the charge “ludicrous.”

May 24 – Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan confirmed that 1,500 additional troops will be deployed to the region.

At a press briefing, the Pentagon clarified that 900 additional troops will be sent to the region and 600 personnel manning Patriot missile batteries would have their deployment extended. Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Katie Wheelbarger emphasized that U.S. policy with respect to Iran had not changed. “As the president and the secretary have been clear, we do not seek conflict with Iran. We do not see these additional capabilities as urging hostilities. We see them as defensive in nature,” she said. Rear Admiral Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Staff, said the IRGC was responsible for the attack on tankers earlier in May. He said limpet mines were used but did not specify how they were delivered.

June 13 – The hull of the Panama-flagged tanker Kokua Courageous was damaged above the water line, Bernhard Schulte Ship management reported. It was attacked twice in three hours before all crew members were evacuated. The ship was owned by the Japanese company Kokyua Sangyo.

A second ship, the Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” according to Taiwanese refiner CPC Corp. Some 75,000 tons of naptha were set ablaze, but the vessel was still afloat, according to Norwegian owner Frontline. Iranian state media had reported that it had sunk. The crew of 23 were rescued by the Hyundai Dubai vessel and were transferred to an Iranian navy vessel bound for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Iranian state media claimed that all 44 members of the ships’ crews were rescued by Iranian teams, citing an unnamed source.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet also said it was responding to distress calls. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump was briefed on the attacks. “The U.S. Government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation,” she added.

Russia warned against rushing to blame the attack on a country or group. “I would take the opportunity to warn against hasty conclusions, against attempts to lay the blame at the door of those we don’t like,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said according to RIA. “Lately we have been seeing a strengthening campaign of political, psychological and military pressure on Iran. We wouldn’t want the events that have just happened, which are tragic and shook the world oil market, to be used speculatively to further aggravate the situation in an anti-Iranian sense.”

Reports of the attack coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the timing was beyond “suspicious.” 

 

Abe was on a mission to deescalate tensions between Iran and the United States. But Khamenei told Abe that there was no point in responding to a message conveyed by Abe from President Donald Trump, who visited Japan on May 27 . “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Khamenei told Abe, according to Iranian state media.

President Trump responded with a tweet:

 

In the afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the attacks – and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan – on Iran. He said the U.S. judgement was based on intelligence, “weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” 

In the evening, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a video allegedly showing Iranian sailors removing a mine from the Kokura Courageous’ hull. 

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi called U.S. accusations against Tehran “alarming.” “We are responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait and we have rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time,” he said in an interview with Iranian state radio.

 

June 14 – President Trump, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks. “Iran did do it,” he said. “They didn’t want the evidence left behind. They don’t know that we have things that we can detect in the dark that work very well. We have that. It was them that did it,” he added, referring the CENTCOM video. 

 

June 17 – U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released high-resolution photos allegedly showing an IRGC boat removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous. Additional photos showed a magnetic device that the mine was attached to and damage to the tanker’s hull. 

 

Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan authorized the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East. “The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” he said. Shanahan reiterated that the United States was not seeking a conflict with Iran and that the action was solely “defensive.”

President Donald Trump referred to recent Iranian attacks as “very minor” in an interview with Time. “If you look at the rhetoric now compared to the days when they were signing that agreement [the 2015 nuclear deal], where it was always ‘death to America, death to America, we will destroy America, we will kill America,’ I’m not hearing that too much anymore, and I don’t expect to,” he added.

June 18 – President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran “will not wage war on any nation,” after the United States announced the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the region.  “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful,” he said in a speech on state television.

IRGC Commander Hossein Salami claimed that Iranian missiles are capable of hitting “carriers in the sea” and “difficult to intercept.” He added that improved Iranian missile technology has altered the balance of power in the region.

July 4- British marines seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar for transporting oil to Syria in violation of E.U. sanctions. The seizure was conducted at the request of the United States, according to the Spanish government. “We welcome international partners’ resolve in upholding and enforcing these sanctions,” said a State Department spokesman. 

 

Tehran condemned the act as an illegal seizure and said the vessel was not heading to Syria. “These days we witnessed a threatening act from the government of England in the Strait of Gibraltar against a tanker from the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is an incorrect and wrong action, an action similar to maritime robbery... certainly these kind of robberies will not be tolerated,” said Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami. 

July 10  President Hassan Rouhani warned that Britain would face “consequences” for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker on July 4. “You (Britain) are the initiator of insecurity and you will realize the consequences later,” he said on state television.  

July 11 – Three IRGC vessels attempted to block a British tanker from passing through the Straight of Hormuz according to the British government. The Iranian boats reportedly withdrew after verbal warnings from a Royal Navy warship that was escorting the tanker. “We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region,” the British government said 

Iran denied any attempt to harass the British tanker. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the British allegations “worthless.” “Apparently the British tanker has passed. What they have said themselves and the claims that have been made are for creating tension and these claims have no value,” he said. 

The United Nations called for freedom of movement for maritime traffic in the Gulf following the incident. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties to conduct “maximum restraint” in the Gulf and warned that a new confrontation “would be a catastrophe.” 

July 12 – Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi urged the British government to release the Iranian tanker seized on July 4. “The claims are without legal basis and we advise [Britain] not to start a dangerous and unclear game under the influence of the Americans,” Mousavi warned.  

July 13 – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his British counterpart Jeremy Hunt that Iran would continue to export oil under any circumstances. Hunt reassured Zarif that Britain respected Iran’s right to export oil as long as the destination was not Syria. Hunt added that Britain would release the Iranian tanker if it received assurances that it would not continue to Syria.  

 

July 15 – An oil tanker disappeared in the Persian Gulf while traveling in Iranian waters. The Panamanian-flagged vessel switched off its transponder off the coast of Iran’s Qeshm Island in the Strait of Hormuz. Tracking data from the tanker revealed that it was heading towards Fujairah before suddenly turning toward Iranian waters. “Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact, it’s going to be a concern,” said a U.S. Defense official.  

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to respond to British “piracy” of an Iranian oil vessel on July 4.  “Evil Britain commits piracy and steals our ship ... and gives it a legal appearance. Iran and those who believe in our system will not leave such evil deeds unanswered,” Khamenei warned.   

July 17 – Iran claimed that it towed an oil tanker from the Straight of Hormuz back to Iranian waters for repairs after receiving a distress call. “A foreign oil tanker encountered a problem in the Persian Gulf due to technical failure, and Iranian forces, in accordance with international regulations, rushed to help it after receiving a distress call,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. Emirati and U.S. officials, however, said the tanker never sent a distress signal.   

The tanker had not been claimed by a specific country despite initial reports linking it to a company in the UAE. U.S. officials were still unsure whether the tanker was seized by Iran or towed back due to mechanical issues. 

July 18 – The IRGC announced that it had seized a foreign tanker smuggling oil on July 14. “The vessel that Iran towed to its waters after receiving a distress call, was later seized with the order from the court as we found out that it was smuggling fuel,” the Revolutionary Guard said on state television. The statement added that 12 foreign crew members were detained and 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel were confiscated. The identity and origin of the ship remained unknown.  

Iranian state news agency Press TV released a video showing IRGC fast boats seizing “The Riah,”a Panamanian-flagged ship that was reported missing in the Straight of Hormuz on July 15.  

July 19  The IRGC seized two foreign oil tankers in the Straight of Hormuz. The British-flagged Stena Impero was heading towards Saudi Arabia when it abruptly veered toward the Iranian island of Qeshm, where the IRGC has a large naval base. The ship’s owner, Stena Bulk, said that it was unable to contact the vessel or its 23-man crew as it was heading north toward Iran. The company said the tanker “was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit in the Straight of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters.” 

The IRGC confirmed it had intercepted the Stena Impero for violating international maritime regulations. "UK tanker ship, Stena Impero, has been detained by the vessels unit of the IRGC Navy's First Naval Zone at the request of the Ports and Maritime Organization's office of Hormuzgan province for disregarding international maritime rules and regulations as it was passing through the Strait of Hormuz this afternoon," the IRGC said in a statement.  

U.S. officials reported that a second tanker, the Liberian-flagged and British-operated Mesdar, was seized by the IRGC about half an hour after the first tanker. The Mesdar made a similar northern course change toward Iran.  

President Trump condemned Iran’s seizure of the vessels and said he would discuss the matter with the United Kingdom. "This only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran. Trouble. Nothing but trouble," Trump said. "It goes to show you I was right about Iran." 

 

Earlier in the day, a court in Gibraltar granted the government authority to detain Iran’s Grace 1 tanker for an additional month. “At a private meeting of the Supreme Court on an application by the Attorney General, the Court has extended the period of detention of the vessel, Grace 1, for a further 30 days and has set a new hearing for 15 August 2019,” the Gibraltar government said.  

 

Updated