Iranian Tanker Damaged in the Red Sea

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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.

The Strait of Hormuz Pressure Cooker

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Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering for the last month. Iran’s actions over the past forty eight hours, and the subsequent US response suggest that the level of tension might be approaching the boiling point. Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz has brought about a rapid US response. A security compact exists between the United States and Marshall Islands. It gives the US authority for security matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, which holds the status of an associate state of the US. On Thursday afternoon, Pentagon officials stated that US Navy warships will now be accompanying US-flagged merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Accompaniment is not a synonym for escorting. By accompanying American-flagged vessels, elements of the US 5th Fleet will remain in the area to provide assistance if needed to the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the strait. If the 5th Fleet was tasked to actually escort the ships, American warships would convoy the merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, the disparity of the wording may appear semantic. In the operational realm, however, the difference is more significant.

Seizing the Maersk Tigris is not the sort of spontaneous action that one would expect from Iran given the current situation in the region. It is, in all likelihood, a calculated move. One piece to a far larger plan. With the nuclear negotiations as the backdrop, the timing of this incident is rather curious. Why has Iran chosen now to provoke the United States? And why in this manner? There are many possibilities, none of them good for the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The seizure could be a warning to the US regarding the final approval of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Or perhaps it is a display of Iranian power and influence. A reminder of what the Iranian military is capable of in and around the straits of Hormuz. Another possibility is that the move is designed to distract US attention away from the Gulf of Aden, where an Iranian convoy was forced to turn back last week under the watchful eye of an American carrier strike group.