Iran decries 'cowardly attack' on oil tanker; Saudi Arabia says it was ready to help

An Iranian government spokesman on Saturday called the apparent targeting of an Iranian oil tanker by missiles a 'cowardly attack' and said Iran would respond after the facts had been studied.
The oil tanker Sabiti sailing in the Red Sea near the Saudi Arabian port of Jaddah on Oct 11, 2019, in a handout from the Iranian state TV official website IRIB.
The oil tanker Sabiti sailing in the Red Sea near the Saudi Arabian port of Jaddah on Oct 11, 2019, in a handout from the Iranian state TV official website IRIB.PHOTO: EPA-EFE/IRIB-TV HANDOUT

RIYADH/DUBAI (AFP, REUTERS) - Saudi Arabia said Saturday (Oct 12) it was ready to help the Iranian tanker that was allegedly attacked off the kingdom’s coast - an incident Iran has decried as a "cowardly attack" - but the ship turned off its tracking system.

The National Iranian Tanker Company, which owns the Sabiti, said its hull was hit by two separate explosions on Friday off the Saudi port of Jeddah.

But the state-owned company denied reports the attack had originated from Saudi soil.

“An e-mail from the captain of the Iranian tanker Sabiti was received saying the front of the vessel had been broken, resulting in an oil spill,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said quoting the border guard.

“After analysing the information by the coordination centre with the aim to provide any necessary assistance... (the ship) shut off its tracking system without responding to the centre’s calls,” it said.

Saudi Arabia, it said, was committed to the security and safety of navigation and international maritime laws.

In early May another Iranian vessel, the “Happiness 1” broke down at about the same location off the port of Jeddah and was repaired in Saudi Arabia, where it was held until its release on July 21.

An Iranian government spokesman on Saturday described the incident 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," spokesman Ali Rabei was quoted as saying by the official news agency IRNA.

"An appropriate response will be given to the designers of this cowardly attack, but we will wait until all aspects of the plot are clarified," he said.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said clues had been uncovered as to who was behind what he called a “missile attack” on tanker, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

“Maritime piracy and wickedness in international waterways... will not be left unanswered,” he said, quoted by ISNA.

The latest incident comes after a spate of still unexplained attacks on shipping in and around the vital seaway to the Gulf involving Iran and Western powers, as well as drone attacks on Saudi oil installations.

Washington accused Tehran of attacking the vessels with mines and to be behind the drone assault, something Tehran strongly denied.

The tanker Sabiti was apparently hit in Red Sea waters off Saudi Arabia on Friday, Iranian media have reported, an incident that could stoke friction in a region rattled by attacks on tankers and oil installations since May.

A senior security official said video evidence had provided leads about the incident, the semi-official news agency Fars reported.

"Piracy and mischief on international waterways aimed at making commercial shipping insecure will not go unanswered," said Mr Shamhkhani, according to Fars.

Leakage of cargo from the tanker has been stopped as it heads for the Gulf, the semi-official Iranian news agency Mehr reported.

"The tanker is heading for Persian Gulf waters and we hope it will enter Iranian waters safely," Mehr quoted an unnamed official as saying. "The cargo leakage has stopped."

The incident, yet to be independently confirmed, is the latest 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, which lies at the southern end of the Red Sea.

 

The United States, embroiled in a dispute with Iran over its nuclear plans, has blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in May and June as well as for strikes on Saudi oil sites in September. Teheran has denied having a role in any of them.

The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, which operates in the region, said it was aware of the reports but had no further information.

There was no claim of responsibility for the reported incident.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said it did not have firm evidence about who may have been behind the incident.

"The proximity of the tanker at the time of the attack to Saudi Arabia's Jeddah port might imply that the missiles could possibly have been launched from the kingdom.

"Another plausible theory is that it was an Israeli sabotage operation ... The purpose would be to disrupt Iranian tanker activity in the Red Sea corridor as it heads towards the Suez Canal. A third possibility would be that the attack was conducted by a terrorist group," Eurasia said in a statement.

The Iranian reports offered sometimes diverging accounts.

Iranian state-run television, citing the national oil company, said the tanker was hit by missiles while denying a report they came from Saudi Arabia.

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.

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.

Crude prices jumped briefly on the news of the alleged attack and industry sources said it could drive up already high shipping costs.