Opinion | Energy & Environment

Attack on Iranian tanker could be tensions flowing to Red Sea

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The Turkish incursion into northern Syria is dominating the news, but an incident in the Red Sea on Friday morning could turn out to be of equal geostrategic significance.

The Iranian tanker Sabiti, carrying 1 million barrels of oil destined for Syria, apparently was attacked by two explosive projectiles in the early hours. The National Iranian Oil Company said the damage had been caused "likely by missiles." The ship promptly turned around and headed back towards Iran.  

Observers who are skeptical of the truth of an Iranian statement wondered whether there actually had been an attack. Instead perhaps, according to this logic, it was merely an elaborate Iranian ruse to cast itself as yet another victim of the recent attacks on oil tankers and facilities, widely blamed on Tehran, although not definitively.

Photos published by Iran on Monday show two holes above the waterline on the starboard (i.e.,  right) side of the tanker, and to a layperson they look like the consequence of an attack. If the tanker was steaming north, that would have been the side facing the Saudi coast. The incident happened 65 miles southwest of the Saudi port city of Jeddah in an area between Sudan and Saudi Arabia, where the Red Sea is more than 100 miles wide.

Intriguingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has announced that there is a video of the attack, but, at the time of this writing, it had not been released. Based on current information, the notion that this was an attack manufactured by Iran to make it look like an injured party remains possible. The motive would be to press for the regional security scheme that Rouhani has proposed - the Hormuz Peace Initiative, which he has shortened, perhaps mischievously, to "Hope."

An alternative would be that the tanker was attacked by a foreign navy, wanting to retaliate for Iran's recent aggressions against tankers in the Persian Gulf and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian foreign ministry has played down initial reports that the missiles came from Saudi Arabia. Such an attack requires a high level of military competence, especially if the intention was to only damage, rather than sink, the tanker.

The United States has been trying to stop the flow of Iranian oil to Syria, as demonstrated by the encouragement given to the United Kingdom in May when a tanker, which had sailed all the way around Africa to avoid using the Suez Canal at the north of the Red Sea, was seized off Gibraltar. Iran promptly retaliated by detaining a British ship in the Gulf and the episode ended only when the Gibraltar authorities released the tanker, which eventually discharged its cargo in Syria.

Despite this tension, the price of oil remains comparatively low - under the closely watched $60 per  barrel level on Monday for the widely traded Brent crude. Yet the danger of price escalation and possible market disruption is high. And to put it bluntly, oil exports are more significant to the health of the world economy than the tragic events along the Syrian border with Turkey.

What we might be seeing is an extension of this summer's Gulf tensions to the Red Sea. The Gulf, and its narrow exit at the Strait of Hormuz, may remain more crucial in oil terms, accounting for as much as 40 percent of world exports. But the Red Sea, with its narrow Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint in the south and the Suez Canal in the north, also is important for energy - and even more so for ordinary commerce between Europe and Asia.

Despite sanctions, the Islamic Republic in Tehran, whether as a schemer or an observer, remains a diplomatic adversary of considerable ingenuity.  

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

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