BEIRUT — Two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged over the weekend near the Persian Gulf in what Saudi Arabia claimed Monday was an “act of sabotage,” further heightening regional tensions with Iran.
There was no immediate indication as to who may have been responsible or why the damage was inflicted, but the incidents occurred at the same time and place off the coast of the United Arab Emirates only days after the United States has dispatched warships and bombers to the area to deter alleged threats from Iran.
The location is near a sea lane critical to the world’s supply of oil, and the incidents followed a warning by U.S. maritime authorities that Iran might seek to disrupt commercial shipping in the area.
One of the Saudi tankers had been preparing to deliver oil to the United States, and both incurred “significant damage” as a result of the apparent attack at around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement reported by the official Saudi news agency.
A statement from Thome Ship Management, the owners of the Norwegian-flagged vessel, said an “unknown object” had created a hole in the hull of one of its ships, the MT Andrea Victory. Photographs of the ship showing a hole just above the waterline have been published, according to the Associated Press.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates produced photographs to support claims that Saudi tankers had been damaged. Falih said the apparent attacks did not cause any casualties or oil spills, and they did not attribute blame for the apparent sabotage.
The incidents coincide, however, with a surge in U.S.-Iranian tensions after the United States said last week that it has received intelligence that Iran was planning some kind of attack on U.S. forces in the Middle East.
In response to the threat, the Pentagon dispatched reinforcements to the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of B-52 bombers. The moves prompted Iran to warn that it is prepared to retaliate if it is attacked.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the possible shipping attacks as “alarming and regrettable” and said it would have a “negative effect” on shipping safety and maritime security, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested that the sabotage might have been carried out as part of a conspiracy to ignite conflict in the region. He cautioned against what he called “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security” and called for an inquiry.
Iran also announced last week that it would pull out of parts of its 2015 nuclear deal with major world powers and step up uranium enrichment, raising concern among the accord’s remaining signatories that it will soon collapse altogether.
Speaking in Brussels, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risk that the tensions could trigger an unintended conflict in the region.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” he told reporters ahead of a European Union meeting later Monday about ways to salvage the deal.
The spike in tensions comes after the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions waivers from eight countries that import Iranian oil, in a bid to bring Iran’s exports down to “zero,” according to U.S. officials. Iranian imports had already plunged after the United States reimposed sanctions in November, following the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord. The expiration of the waivers is expected to inflict further pain on Iran’s already reeling economy.
It was not immediately clear whether the two Saudi vessels that were damaged were among four ships that the United Arab Emirates said Sunday were sabotaged in the same area. Hours before the UAE reported the damage to the ships, Iran-linked news outlets had circulated reports that a big attack on the port at Fujairah had set fire to seven ships. Those have since been proved false.
The U.S. maritime authority reissued an earlier warning after the Sunday attacks that Iran might seek to target commercial shipping in the area, the Associated Press reported.
“Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz,” an earlier warning issued last week said. “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait or the Persian Gulf.”
The State Department also updated a travel advisory to U.S. citizens in Iraq on Monday that was issued in the wake of the rising tensions last week. Among other threats, the advisory cautioned Americans of the risk posed by “anti-U.S. sectarian militias,” a reference to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that play a powerful role in Iraq.
The latest advisory simply warned: “Do not travel to Iraq.”
Iraq is one of the locations where Iran may be plotting to attack U.S. interests, U.S. officials have told American news outlets.