WASHINGTON – An initial US assessment indicated Iran likely was behind the attack on two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and two other vessels damaged over the weekend near the Strait of Hormuz, a US official said, a finding that, if confirmed, would further inflame military tensions in the Persian Gulf.
The assessment, while not conclusive, was the first suggestion by any nation that Iran was responsible for the attack and comes after a series of US warnings against aggression by Iran or its allies and proxies against military or commercial vessels in the region.
The US official, who declined to be identified, didn’t offer details about what led to the assessment or its implications for a possible US response. The US has said in the past week that it was sending an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship, a bomber task force and an antimissile system to the region after it alleged intelligence showed Iran posed a threat to its troops.
“If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran,” President Trump said while meeting with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House earlier on Monday.
Iran’s office at the United Nations didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Saudi tankers were among at least four oil-industry vessels, including ships from Norway and the United Arab Emirates, attacked on Sunday in the Gulf of Oman off the UAE’s eastern coast as they prepared to cross into the Persian Gulf, Saudi officials said. The attacks caused “significant damage to the structures of the two [Saudi] vessels,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said, calling the incident sabotage.
The attacks sent oil prices higher and heightened worries about global supplies amid petroleum-production outages because of unrest in Venezuela, a civil war in Libya and sanctions on Iran. Saudi and American US officials have long worried about the Strait of Hormuz becoming a battleground should tensions with Iran break out into open conflict.
Washington has placed crippling economic sanctions on Iran and is trying to push its oil exports to zero to force the country to give up regional influence, scale back its military activities and stop threatening Israel.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates have publicly blamed Iran for the attacks. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, described Sunday’s incident as dreadful and called for an investigation, Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.
A third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20% of total global oil production flows through the Strait of Hormuz for export from Persian Gulf countries. Cutting off oil shipped through the strait would cause shortages and soaring prices.
Underscoring the risk, Falih said one of the ships was headed to the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf to load oil bound for the US.
Earlier, an American official and a senior Saudi official said Washington and its allies don’t know who was behind the attacks and doubted Iran’s involvement because of the risk of escalation with the US At the UAE’s request, the US military sent a team on Monday to inspect the ships to determine who was behind the sabotage, an American defense official said. Some Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to the sanctions, but there has been no follow-through.
“It would be very clumsy from the Iranians,” the US official said.
Exactly what happened to the tankers was difficult to ascertain, as Saudi and UAE officials released few details. Falih said the attacks caused no oil spills.
One ship, a Saudi-flagged tanker called Al-Marzoqah, suffered an explosion after its main engine caught on fire, said officials involved with the vessel who added that the fire’s cause remained unknown on Monday.
The Marzoqah gave its destination as the Gulf of Oman port of Fujairah in the UAE, laden with oil picked up at the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu, according to TankerTrackers.com.
The other Saudi ship, the Amjad, is a tanker known as a Very Large Crude Container that can carry as much as 2.2 million barrels of crude.
The other attacked ships were Norwegian tanker the Andrea Victory and the A. Michel, a UAE fuel tanker.
Fujairah’s port was operating normally late Monday, and none of the damaged vessels had entered the harbor, according to workers and security at the site.
From videos shot by local camera crews, only the Andrea Victory had visible damage, with a small hole in the rear of the hull, but didn’t appear in danger of sinking. The A. Michel and the Al Marzoqah were leaning into the water, but it wasn’t clear how they were damaged, according to port staff and photos viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Fujairah’s walled-off port runs along the coast for about 3 miles and is dotted with dozens of crude-oil storage tanks watched by security cameras.
Saudi oil tankers have in the past been vulnerable to attacks from regional foes. Saudi Arabia’s state shipping company, Bahri, says it operates more than 90 vessels, including more than 40 VLCCs.
Twice last year, Houthi rebels attacked Saudi tankers off the Red Sea coast of Yemen. After the second attack, in July, Saudi Arabia halted oil exports through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a key waterway for oil shipments.
In the absence of anyone claiming Sunday’s attacks, the incident fed into suspicions simmering in the region. Iran last week said it would stop complying with some aspects of the nuclear deal it signed in 2015, and from which President Trump withdrew the US last year, and gave Europe two months to help it thwart American sanctions or risk Tehran restarting parts of its atomic program.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, en route to Russia, made an unscheduled stop in Brussels to discuss Iran with European leaders.
Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, told reporters Pompeo had raised the matter of the attacks on the tankers, but wouldn’t comment on whether Pompeo holds Iran or its allies in the region responsible.
“The developments warrant sharing more information, and this was a very good and convenient opportunity to stop and do a signals check with his European allies, and also to meet with NATO and the EU for similar discussions,” he said of Pompeo.
Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would share with his US counterpart his concerns “about the risk of a conflict happening by accident” between the US and Iran.