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  HOME | Oil, Mining & Energy (Click here for more)

Gulf of Oman Attacks Trigger Tighter Security on Key Shipping Routes

RIYADH – Governments and tanker companies were stepping up efforts to protect shipping lanes as the US and Iran traded accusations over attacks on two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway traversed by over a third of the world’s seaborne crude oil.

Saudi Arabia has increased security around oil facilities and strategic areas, a senior Saudi official said. The United Arab Emirates has joined with shipping companies to increase sea-lane security in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman, according to Gulf officials familiar with the discussions.

Shipping insurance costs were rising fast, with rates on supertanker cargoes for the Middle East-to-China route jumping 34% after the attacks, hitting $24,854 a day, according a broker in Singapore.

US officials say it was clear that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was responsible for Thursday’s attacks. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shot back on Twitter, suggesting the US or its allies were likely behind the assaults and that Washington “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran – [without] a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.”

“Iran did do it,” Trump said on Fox News, pointing to a video that US Central Command said showed an IRGC vessel removing a limpet mine from the hull of one of the ships, the Kokuka Courageous, a Japanese-operated vessel. “I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it... It was them that did it.”

Persian Gulf oil producers and tanker companies scurried in response to tension “as high as it gets without being an actual armed conflict,” according to BIMCO, a shipping trade group.

The Saudi official said the attacks have exposed vulnerabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, through which between two and three dozen ships pass every day. Gulf states are struggling to mount a strong defense against drones and torpedoes.

“The key thing now is to find a way to deal with those type of attacks in the future and assure everyone that those routes are still safe,” the official said.

Military units from unspecified countries are deployed off Fujairah, the easternmost emirate of the UAE, for “surveillance, monitoring and response,” said tanker-industry associations Intertanko and Oil Companies International Marine Forum, or OCIMF. The US has had a large contingent in the area, including an aircraft carrier group.

The organizations are in contact with Emirati and Saudi authorities, as well as the international Combined Maritime Forces, to gather information about the attacks that could help its members decide on security, a person familiar with the matter said. The international maritime force is a naval partnership including the US tasked with protecting civilian maritime traffic against piracy and terrorism in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

“It’s a difficult situation and there may be more attacks,” said Theodore Veniamis, president of the Union of Greek Shipowners, whose members control around a third of the world’s crude tankers and 15% of chemical and product tankers. “The threat to crews and ships is high.”

Thursday’s attack followed weeks of simmering tension in the region between Iran and the US in the wake of the Trump administration’s exit last year from the multinational 2015 nuclear deal and imposition of sanctions on Tehran.

A US military official said Friday an American MQ-9 drone was shot down over Yemen June 6, “with Iranian assistance.”

The official didn’t elaborate on Iran’s involvement. The military official said the drone was targeted by a Soviet-made SA-6 surface-to-air missile system. The US drone was later destroyed by an American airstrike to protect the classified systems and data aboard the aircraft, the official said.

The US and its Middle East allies have accused Iran of orchestrating a series of attacks in recent weeks, including the sabotage of four tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May and drone attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia. The US has built up its military presence in the region in response to what it calls Iranian threats, while Tehran has threatened to withdraw from some limits on its nuclear program in retaliation for sanctions.

The Trump administration has said it is considering options including military escorts for tankers traveling through the area, but some US military officials said they don’t believe accompanying each tanker through the Strait of Hormuz is practical.

Escorts for all tankers would be costly and wouldn’t be able to start for several weeks, as the Navy would have to locate ships and send them to the region, officials said. In 2015, the Navy accompanied commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran seized a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship. But that mission only lasted for days and was limited to US-flagged ships.

Analysts said that if Iran was responsible for the attacks, they were likely carried out by the IRGC, a powerful military cadre that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The IRGC has in the past benefited from conflict and Iranian isolation and has chafed at President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to rein in its influence.

The IRGC’s navy makes waters off Iran potentially treacherous. The paramilitary force is equipped to swarm hostile vessels with fast boats armed with torpedoes and short-range missiles and small patrol craft equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers. It can mine the strait and traverse it with aircraft.

IRGC commanders have repeatedly threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz if Iran isn’t allowed to export oil. Under US sanctions, Iranian oil exports have fallen to about 500,000 barrels a day, down from 2.9 million barrels a day in 2016.

“The threat of disrupting the flow of oil to the international markets is one of the few ways in which Tehran can retaliate against the US, perhaps without provoking war,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow with the Arab Gulf States Institute, a Washington think tank, and an expert on the IRGC. “Tehran believes President Trump’s unwillingness to entangle the US in wars is one of the few factors restraining the US.”

The IRGC hasn’t publicly commented on the attacks, but Iran’s mission to the United Nations in a statement Thursday called the allegations “another Iranophobic campaign.”

The details of Thursday’s attacks made shipowners nervous.

One of the tankers, a Norwegian vessel, appeared to have been hit by a torpedo. The other tanker, owned by Kokuka Sangyo Co., was struck by two “flying objects,” the president of the Japanese company said at a Tokyo press conference on Friday.

Neither scenario supported Trump’s suggestion that mines were to blame.

“Nothing can stop a torpedo,” said a Greek owner of more than a dozen tankers. “I would have pulled two of our ships out of there, but they are on contract with a Chinese client and we’ve got to move the oil.”

Shipping trade groups offered advice for captains and crews operating in the region. The Norwegian Maritime Authority advised captains to keep a safe distance from Iranian waters and called for increased patrols, including in ports and on vessels.

BIMCO recommended measures such as increased onboard patrols, notably in nonrestricted areas of vessels. It also advised crews and captains to make sure hulls are well secured by closing doors and hatches that could be entered from the outside, and ensure that crews sleep in areas located above the waterline.


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