Owner says two blasts onboard Sabiti were ‘probably caused by missile strikes’
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
A picture taken in March 2017 shows the Sabiti docking at the platform of the oil facility in the Kharg Island. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
An Iranian state-owned oil tanker has been hit by two explosions as it headed to Syria to unload its cargo, in what has been described by Iranian official sources as a terrorist incident.
The Sabiti was struck in the Gulf Sea, about 60 miles from the Saudi port of Jeddah, at 5am local time. There were no casualties, but the ship leaked oil into the sea.
Two of the main oil tanks on the ship were hit by two explosions, 20 minutes apart, from what has been described as missiles.
Iranian state-controlled news agencies said the Sabiti had been targeted in a terrorist attack. The incident could be a reprisal for Iranian-attributed attacks on international shipping in United Arab Emirates ports, as well as the cruise missile and drone strikes on two Aramco oil installations in Saudi Arabia on 14 September.
The US and the UK have attributed those attacks to state actors, saying they were carried out either directly or through surrogate forces.
Confirming Tehran’s viewed that Friday’s incident was a deliberate act of aggression, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said: “Those behind the attack are responsible for the consequences of this dangerous adventure, including the dangerous environmental pollution caused.”
He added: “The details and factors behind this act will be investigated and will be announced after the results are reached.”
Suggestions that the oil company was blaming Saudi Arabia at this stage were denied.
Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks on international shipping and oil infrastructure. The United Nations has yet to publish a planned detailed assessment of the source of the 14 September incident even though UN inspectors visited the sites a fortnight ago. European and US leaders said the probable source of the attack was Iran, and not Houthi rebels based in Yemen.
Friday’s incident, if confirmed as an attack, would be the first such incident targeting Iran-owned shipping in the Gulf, though a state-owned tanker, Grace 1, was seized by the British authorities off Gibraltar on the basis that the ship was breaching an EU oil embargo.
Iranian news agencies stressed that the Sabiti was stable, no crew had been injured and the leak was being brought under control.
Iranian ships routinely turn off their transponders to prevent tracking, but the Sabiti turned on its tracking devices late on Friday morning in the Red Sea, according to data from MarineTraffic.com.
The vessel last turned on its tracking devices in August, showing it near the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Dryad Global, a firm specialising in oil shipping intelligence, said the vessel’s proximity to the port of Jeddah made it plausible that Saudi Arabia could have been involved within the incident, or at the very least the incident was intended to create the perception of Saudi involvement.
But it added: “In terms of Saudi interests within the region, it remains unclear why Saudi would seek to target Iran in this manner. An attack of relatively low sophistication with limited and almost negligible strategic gain would be highly irregular and not serve any Saudi strategic narrative. Further still, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would risk an ecological disaster in an area of strategic significance such as the Red Sea.”
Tension in the strait of Hormuz has been heightened for months as the US and Iran spar over Washington’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and impose worldwide sanctions on Iran including its oil exports.
An attempt by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, at the UN general assembly in New York to engineer a meeting between the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and US counterpart, Donald Trump, failed as the two sides could not reach agreement on the sequencing of the compromises the two sides would have to take. Since then, the Pakistan prime minister, Imran Khan, has stepped forward as a possible mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The perception was that neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE, Iran’s two main Gulf rivals, were looking to escalate the crisis by undertaking a military response to the Aramco incident. It would be surprising if either Gulf state resorted to the kind of plausible deniability tactics deployed by Iran. Israel is also deeply hostile to Iran but has confined most of its attacks to Iranian military sites in Syria.
The latest attacks on oil shipping started on 12 May when four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers, were attacked in the Gulf just outside the strait of Hormuz, which is a major oil shipping route.
US and British officials blamed Iran, a charge Tehran denies. A further two tankers were hit on 13 June, and a week later Iran said it had shot down a US surveillance drone, an attack that nearly led to a major reprisal by the Trump administration.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for the 14 September attacks on Saudi Aramco plants in Abqaiq and Khurais, but the US said the attacks came from the direction of Iran.
Oil prices jumped 2% after reports of the tanker explosion on Friday, with crude futures rising more than $1 a barrel.