Monday’s attack on a Singapore-flagged oil tanker docked at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is raising fears of more attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure as US-Iranian tensions continue to mount. Although no nation, or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack on the BW Rhine, Iran is viewed as the instigator as the attack was likely carried out by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy group. The tanker was struck by a small boat carrying explosives causing blast damage and a fire on board. The attack has temporarily closed the Saudi port and brought on concern about the safety of oil tankers in the Red Sea.
Iran is thought to have played a role in the attack. The recent assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, coupled with the declining health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other regional setbacks are forcing Iran to demonstrate it is capable of striking back at US and Saudi interests in the region. The above-mentioned events supply Iran with motive while the Houthis provided means. It is by no means a clear cut indication of guilt, however, all signs do seem to be pointing towards Iran.
Iran’s national oil company has claimed that one of itsoil tankers in the Red Sea has suffered an explosion, and damage. Initially, Iran claimed the cause of the explosion was a missile strike on the vessel but hours later official accounts had rolled back the missile claim. There has been no indication about whether an oil spill has occurred as a result of the damage, if the ship is on fire, or its overall condition. Late this afternoon, Iranian state television reported the ship is returning to Iran. The contradictory reports and lack of facts have only raised more questions about exactly what happened to the tanker, which. News of the explosion boosted oil prices by around 4%.
Iran is conducting an investigation into the incident. “The details of the attack and the instigators are under investigation and will be announced in due course,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. Given that Iran has been blamed for the recent missile strike on Saudi oil facilities, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iran discovers it was Saudi Arabia that perpetrated the oil tanker attack in retaliation. I’ll be honest, that was the first thought to cross my mind after seeing the headline this morning.
It’s not as if Iran doesn’t have the men, and equipment to attack an oil tanker, theirs or otherwise. The world has seen Iran carry out attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf this year using limpet mines and explosives planted by IRGC troops, and operatives. The motive for conducting an attack against one of its own ships is certainly present and valid. Tehran would certainly hope an overt attack on an Iranian asset would shift some of the scrutiny away from Iran. You can never put anything past the Iranian government, especially now when it must seem to them as if the walls are closing in. Economic sanctions, US pressure, and Saudi Arabian suspicion are combining to have a decidedly negative effect on the leadership in Tehran.
From the Strait of Hormuz to the Black Sea, Tanker Seizure appears to be the latest rage. At the current pace I’m expecting to see it become an Olympic sport in time for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. This time it was Ukraine seizing a Russian oil tanker in the port of Izmail in the Odessa region of Ukraine. Ukrainian security services seized the Nemya, a Russian-flagged tanker that it suspects was one of the ships that took part in the blocking of the Kerch Strait in November, 2018. That incident led to Russia seizing three Ukrainian ships and nearly spilled over into a much larger conflict.
The Russian government was fast to respond, calling the seizure illegal and warning of consequences should the Russian crew be taken hostage. Ukrainian security services allowed the crew members to depart the ship and leave the country, stating that the sailors had no part in the November incident.
This action comes at a time when the new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been working to arrange a prisoner exchange with Russia to get back the Ukrainian sailors apprehended by Russia back in November. It is too early to suggest just how severely today’s seizure will impact the effort, though it is fair to assume there will be a visible effect.
The detention of the Nemya marks the first major incident between Russia and Ukraine since Zelenskiy’s election in April. Despite the fact that the summer months have regularly been a time when fighting escalates in Eastern Ukraine, this summer has been relatively quiet so far. Zelenskiy’s geopolitical skills will be put to the test in the coming days and weeks as the drama involving the Nemya, and the Ukrainian sailors still in Russian custody plays out.
Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz over the last 24 hours threaten to move the current standoff between Tehran and the West into dangerous waters. The seizure of a British-flagged tanker yesterday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stoked tensions in the region. A second tanker owned by a British company but Liberian-flagged was also stopped and boarded but subsequently permitted to move on. Iran claims the seizure is a “reciprocal” action, apparently in response to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria on 4 July. An IRGC spokesman released a statement claiming that this was the case. However, a government message put out via Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) claims the tanker was seized because it rammed an Iranian trawler in the Strait of Hormuz.
For the moment, London appears to be ruling out military action as a response. Given the current state and dispositions of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, this does not come as a surprise. Britain will not move unilaterally. The Queen’s aircraft and warships will only go into action in concert with a US effort. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s actions as “destabilizing and illegal.” He also warned of “serious consequences” for Tehran.
The tanker seizures also serve as a warning to the United States and the West that commercial vessels using the Strait of Hormuz are at the mercy of Iran. The Iranian government’s threats to close the strait and attempt to strangle the global economy have gained more credibility over the last few days. Tehran’s hope is that the tanker seizures will lead to European pressure for the US to scale back its economic sanctions in place against Iran.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to ensure the safe passage of vessels operating in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through a multi-national maritime effort. This will be discussed later in the weekend.
The United States was primed and ready to begin attacks against the Iranian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and radar sites responsible for shooting down an unarmed US Navy MQ-4 drone over the Strait of Hormuz. At the last moment, President Trump cancelled the strikes, citing the unacceptably high risk of Iranian casualties. In Trump’s view the Iranians had shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle. Responding with air and cruise missile strikes that could kill up to 150 Iranians was not a proportionate reply. It remains unknown whether the strike plans have been permanently cancelled, or placed on a temporary hold for the moment.
President Trump’s pause presents an opportunity for Iranian government to dial back its belligerent actions and turn off the crisis without losing face. Trump has demonstrated that the US is prepared to response militarily if a single US life is lost as a result of Iranian military action. By not retaliating due to concerns about casualties, Trump has seized the moral high ground and shown the world that the United States is not actively seeking a conflict with Iran. The ball is now in Teheran’s court. If Iran chooses to remain on the path it is currently on, it will inevitably lead to US military action, and even more economic sanctions.
The root cause of this crisis is the current state of Iran’s economy. US sanctions have placed a tremendous burden on the government, which now seems to be irreversibly tethered to the belief Washington will ease the sanctions as a result of the pressure Iran, and its proxies are applying in the region.
The next forty-eight hours could reveal much about Iran’s future intentions, and the direction this crisis will take.