According to sources within Iran, an oil tanker was allegedly hit by missiles this morning while cruising about 60 miles off the Saudi port of Jeddah. The National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) said the ship Sabiti was damaged, but was not set ablaze.
The incident, which has yet to be independently confirmed, is the latest involving oil tankers in the Red Sea and Gulf area, and is likely to ratchet up tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, long-time regional foes that have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, which lies at the southern end of the Red Sea.
Reports of the incident, which have so far only come from Iranian sources, offered sometimes diverging accounts. State television, citing the national oil company, said it was hit by missiles while denying a report they came from Saudi Arabia.
NITC said in statement on its website that “the blasts were probably caused by missile strikes” and it was investigating the source, adding two tanks were damaged but the crew was safe.
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 on the news and industry sources said it could drive up already high shipping costs.
There was no claim of responsibility for Friday’s reported incident, which follows attacks on tankers in the Gulf in May and June, as well as strikes on Saudi oil sites in September.
The United States, embroiled in a row with Tehran over its nuclear plans, has blamed Iran for those incidents. Tehran has denied having a role in any of the attacks since May.
Saudi Arabia had no immediate comment on Friday’s reports. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which operates in the region, said it was aware of the reports but had no further information.
Refinitiv ship tracking information indicated the Sabiti, a Suezmax class tanker, was in the Red Sea and heading south under its own power, bound for Larak, off Iran’s southern Gulf coast.
The data put the vessel’s draft, or how deeply it sits in the water, at 53%, indicating it is not fully loaded.
The ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS), which gives its position, appeared to have been off for two months until transmissions resumed on Oct. 11, shortly after the incident. Refinitiv data showed it off Iran’s Gulf coast in mid-August after passing through the Suez Canal in late July and early August.
Tracking service Marine Traffic said on Twitter that, based on its information, including a NASA shot of the area and AIS data, “we do not see any smoke, fire, spills or tugboats. Instead, we see a tanker cruising home at a healthy speed.”
Iranian media had originally identified the ship as another Iranian Suezmax tanker, the Sinopa, which tracking data showed was nearby in the Red Sea.
Tensions with the United States have been running high since Washington withdrew from a deal between world powers and Iran that aimed to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. sanctions have slashed Iranian oil exports, on which Tehran relies.
Russia said it was too early to assign blame for the tanker explosion. China, the top buyer of Iranian oil, said it hoped all parties would work to uphold peace and stability in the region.
Iran’s ISNA news agency had earlier cited a source saying the Iranian tanker was struck in a “terrorist” attack.
Fox News reported that the incident had caused an oil leak into the Red Sea, according to the NIOC, but that the leak had been plugged.
Fox News continued:
“This latest incident, if confirmed to be an act of aggression, is highly likely to be part of the wider narrative of deteriorating relations between Saudi and the U.S. and Iran,” according to an assessment provided to the Associated Press by private maritime security firm Dryad Maritime. “It is likely that the region, having been stable for the last month, will face another period of increasing maritime threats, as the Iranian and Saudi geopolitical stand-off continues.”
The stricken vessel, identified by IRNA as the Sibiti, was carrying about 1 million barrels of crude oil when it was struck, an analysis from data firm Refinitiv showed.
The news agency did not say whom Iranian officials suspect may be responsible for launching the missiles.
Lt. Pete Pagano, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet overseeing the Mideast, said authorities there were “aware of reports of this incident,” but declined to comment further.