An Iranian tanker Sabiti was earlier this month hit by missiles in Red Sea waters off Saudi Arabia. The incident is likely to further heighten friction in the region, already rattled by attacks on tankers and oil installations since May.
The Red Sea is a major global shipping route for oil and other trade, linking the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. Oil prices rose on the news of the incident and industry sources said it could drive up already high shipping costs.
It is the latest incident involving oil tankers in the Red Sea and Gulf region, and may ratchet up tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, long-time regional adversaries fighting a proxy war in Yemen, at the southern end of the Red Sea.
There was no claim of responsibility for the reported incident and it has yet to be independently confirmed.
The proximity of the tanker at the time of the attack to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah port gives western media to allege that the missiles could have been launched from the kingdom.
Another plausible theory could be that the ship was hit in an Israeli sabotage operation. The purpose would be to disrupt Iranian tanker activity in the Red Sea corridor as it heads toward the Suez Canal. A third possibility would be that the attack was conducted by a terrorist group.
An Iranian government spokesman has described targeting of an Iranian-owned oil tanker by missiles as a “cowardly attack” and said Iran would respond after the facts had been studied.
“Iran is avoiding haste, carefully examining what has happened and probing facts,” government spokesman Ali Rabei, said.
Separately, a senior security official said video evidence had provided leads about the incident, adding that the Sabiti was hit by two missiles.
“A special committee has been set up to investigate the attack on Sabiti… with two missiles and its report will soon be submitted to the authorities for decision,” said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s top security body.
“Piracy and mischief on international waterways aimed at making commercial shipping insecure will not go unanswered,” he said
According to Iranian sources, leakage of cargo from the tanker has been stopped as it heads for the Gulf. The tanker is heading for Persian Gulf waters and it was expected to enter Iranian waters safely. Nasrollah Sardashti, head of National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) that owns the damaged tanker, said the crew was safe and the vessel would reach Iranian waters within 10 days.
Saudi Arabia said it received a distress message from the damaged tanker but the vessel kept moving and switched off its transponder before it could be provide assistance.
The United States has been blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in May and June as well as for strikes on Saudi oil sites in September. Tehran has denied having a role in any of them.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which operates in the region, said it was aware of the reports but had no further information.
According to western media, at times, Iranian narratives offer diverging accounts. State-run television, citing the national oil company, said the tanker was hit by missiles while denying a report they came from Saudi Arabia.
It also said, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the ship was hit twice, without saying what struck it. State television broadcast images from the Sabiti’s deck saying they were taken after the attack but showing no visible damage. The ship’s hull was not in view.
Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said it did not have firm evidence about who may have been behind the incident.