June 13, 2019

The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, reportedly received two separate distress calls at 0612 and 0700 local time June 13 from two vessels in the Gulf of Oman. The Japanese-owned and Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned and Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair vessels were carrying "Japan-related" goods to destinations in Asia, according to a statement from Japanese officials. Kokuka Courageous, with 21 sailors on board, was headed to Singapore, and Front Altair with 23 sailors on board was en route to Taiwan.

WorldAware, Inc. map of attacks on oil tankers located in the Gulf of Oman.

What prompted the distress signals and the eventual evacuation of the crews from the vessels appears to have been an explosion and ensuing fires. While none of the sailors on Front Altair incurred injuries, one of the sailors aboard Kokuka Courageous was wounded. Currently, it remains unclear what caused the explosions, but initial reports indicate that shelling and an underwater landmine may have been the source. The exact cause of these explosions will likely remain unclear until a thorough investigation into the incidents is launched.  The incidents have raised serious concerns about the safety of commercial vessels that are operating in the Strait of Hormuz, particularly given that the incidents are transpiring at a time when tensions between Washington and Tehran are elevated.


Location of the Incidents

The incidents involving the oil tankers took place in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz. The two vessels were reportedly located only 32 km (20 miles) from the Iranian port of Jask, which serves as a major Iranian naval base. While Iran has regularly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to deter threats from Washington, it has yet to act on these threats. The Strait of Hormuz - a key waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, is the world's busiest maritime oil traffic route; the strait is also the only sea passageway from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. The incidents on June 13 follow another attack that took place on May 12 near the Port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Following an investigation, Emirati officials attributed that attack to a "state actor" without naming or identifying a country or organization. The Port of Fujairah is 138 km (86 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz and is one of the UAE's major shipping and cargo facilities.


Heightened Tensions

Tensions have been rising between Washington and Tehran since the US pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The US has been targeting major Iranian commercial and military entities in an attempt to encourage Iran to put an end to its regional involvements in places such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, and to end its ballistic missile program, as well as cease its ambitions of pursuing nuclear capabilities. In April, Washington designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and has penalized several IRGC-linked commercial companies. For example, on June 7, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Iran's Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (PGPIC) for providing financial assistance to the IRGC. The US also sanctioned 39 subsidiary companies that are linked to the PGPIC and foreign-based sales representatives. According to a statement from the US government, the PGPIC is responsible for 40 percent of Iran's petrochemical production capacity and 50 percent of the country's exports. Elevated tensions and bellicose rhetoric has made many actors, including the US government and its allies, blame the oil tanker explosions on Tehran and its allies.


The Perpetrators

There is no proof or evidence implicating or linking Iran or its allies to the incidents. While the Al-Houthi rebel group in Yemen continues to launch missile and drone attacks against Saudi civilian, military, and commercial targets, the group has not claimed responsibility for the June 13 incidents or the May 12 attacks. It is highly unlikely that the Al-Houthis have this kind of capability within their arsenal. While the IRGC regularly issues statements saying they would welcome a confrontation with the US, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani does not want to escalate tensions to the point of a direct war. Tehran is faced with a myriad of major problems, including a weakening economy and growing public discontent.

On June 12, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Tehran for a two-day official visit to de-escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran. Iranian officials reportedly called on Prime Minister Abe to encourage the US to ease its economic sanctions on Iran. The attack on the Japanese vessel took place as Prime Minister Abe and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were in a meeting. Abe's visit to Iran is of historical significance; no Japanese prime minister has visited the country in the last four decades since Prime Minster Takeo Fukuda's visit in 1978. Tehran and Tokyo have historically maintained friendly diplomatic relations. Japan has had significant investments in the country and is one of the major importers of Iranian crude oil; it was one of the few countries that had been granted sanctions waivers to import Iranian crude oil until the US ended them in early May. Japan is perhaps one of the few countries that is in a position to ease tensions between Washington and Tehran due to its ties to both countries. Tehran is thus highly unlikely to have attacked a Japanese vessel and jeopardize relations with such a country.


What to Expect Next

Unless the perpetrators of these attacks and incidents are identified, such incidents could persist. These attacks will not only have a direct impact on energy supply operations but also on the stability and security of the entire Gulf region. Approximately 40 percent of the seaborne oil crude is transited through the Strait of Hormuz; therefore, insecurity in this key waterway would have a direct impact on the global supply of oil and disrupt shipping operations. In light of these recent incidents, companies involved in shipping and the transportation of commodities through the Strait of Hormuz should institute additional protective measures and mechanisms. As commercial vessels are not equipped with military weaponry and technology, shipping companies may have to rely on their countries' navies to accompany them to ensure safety.


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