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Iran denies it was responsible for tanker attacks; slams U.S. accusation as “baseless”

The tanker Front Altair burns after being attacked with some kind of explosive device in the Gulf of Oman; Photo: Fars News Agency

Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks carried out early yesterday morning on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the sea immediately adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz. A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry slammed the U.S. accusations as “baseless”. Maritime security experts say commercial ships are impossible to defend.

Yesterday, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of carrying out the attacks on the tankers. One, the Kokuka Courageous, was reported to be carrying a cargo of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore and the other, the Front Altair, was carrying a cargo of naphtha from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan. Pompeo said that the assessment was based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to carry out the operation, recent attacks on shipping which Pompeo said were carried out by Iran, and the claim that “no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and the proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” However, evidence was not provided at that time.

Allegations were “baseless” says Iran

Iran immediately denied the allegations as baseless.

Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said, “Pinning the blame on Iran for the suspicious and regrettable incident for the oil tankers seems to be the easiest and most simplistic thing Mr. Pompeo and other U.S. statesmen could do,” Mousavi said.

Mousavi added, “While the Japanese prime minister [Shinzo Abe] is meeting with Iran’s top leader to discuss ways to ease regional tensions, which clandestine hands have been at work to undermine such efforts and who benefits from that? Mr. Pompeo! The suspicious nature of incidents for oil tankers is not a joke. It is not only not funny, but it is also worrying and alarming.”

Details of attack not yet confirmed

The exact nature of the attacks is not truly known at this point.

Reports from the international media (Reuters) have suggested that the crew of the Kokuka Courageous saw something “flying” at the ship and they later found a hole. That would be consistent with a missile or a torpedo.

The U.S. Navy subsequently released a grainy black and white video, captured by an airplane, that showed a small, light-colored boat approaching and pulling alongside the tanker. Crew from the small craft stood on the prow and can be seen reaching up along the hull before sitting back down on the prow while the craft pulls away. The U.S. Navy alleges that the craft is an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Gashti-class patrol boat and that the patrol boat’s crew were removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of the tanker.

Unfortunately, the video is blurry and it cannot be clearly seen what exactly, if anything, is being done, nor is it determinative of the allegiance of the crew or the boat.

A still image from the video released by the U.S. Navy. It says that the light-coloured boat is an Iranian patrol craft and that the boat’s crew are removing an unexploded limpet mine from a tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

U.S. Central Command also provided a timeline of what it says happened. U.S. naval forces received two separate distress calls, one at 06:12 a.m. from the Front Altair and another at 07:00 a.m. local time from the Kokuka Courageous, both in international waters. At 08:09 a.m. U.S. forces say their aircraft observed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Hendijan-class patrol boat and “multiple” Revolutionary Guard attack craft in the vicinity of the Altair. About an hour later, U.S. forces say they observed fast attack craft pull a raft from the Altair out of the water.

Crews rescued… but by who?

There is some dispute between the two sides over what happened next, but it appears that 21 of the crew of the Altair were picked up by passing vessel Hyundai Dubai. The U.S. forces say that the Hyundai Dubai complied with a request from the Iranians to turn over the rescued crew. The Iranians say they were helping with the rescue of the crew of the Altair and were evacuating them to the nearby Iranian port of Jask where the crew could receive emergency care.

About 21 sailors from the Kokuka Courageous, who had abandoned their ship, were picked up by a Dutch tug. Those sailors were later transferred to the warship U.S.S. Bainbridge, which released images of what it said were the crew of the Kokuka Courageous aboard the warship. The Iranian authorities, however, said that they had rescued everyone.

A crewman from the Kokuka Courageous (left) receives emergency medical care from a naval sailor of the U.S.S. Bainbridge (right). Photo: U.S. Navy.

U.S. forces then said they observed the Revolutionary Guard’s Gashti-Class patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of the Kokuka Courageous – an allegation that the Iranians have vehemently denied.

FreightWaves consulted two highly regarded international maritime security experts as to the physical nature of the attack.

One of the maritime security experts spoke to FreightWaves on condition of anonymity.

“I still don’t even know what the threat is”

“I still don’t even know what the threat is that we have to defend against. In the past, the Iranians have used a fleet of surface fast attack craft so the identity of the threat has been obvious. Torpedoes would be very high tech while limpet mines would be very low tech and not traceable. So there are a number of threats – which threat do you protect against? Is there any evidence?” the expert said.

The expert also mused on the different ways of attacking ships. “If it was a limpet mine, was it put there while the ship was underway? Or was it attacked by a diver at berth or anchorage?” He also pointed out that, alternatively, it could have been a contact mine or, if it was a high tech mine, it would lie on the seabed waiting to detect the sound signature of a vessel. When the signal is received the mine would launch to attack a ship. “But they’re expensive and that implies major players.”

“It looks like an annoyance and a fear tactic,” he said.

Defending ships against attacks appears to be very difficult.

Defense tactics

The standard defense against divers is detection, the source said. Ships need to maintain extra watches with strong lights shining into the water so that hostile divers can be seen. But that pre-supposes clear waters. Alternatively, watchmen can try to look for air bubbles emitted from a diver’s breathing apparatus moving in a line toward or around a ship.

He referenced the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000. In that attack, Al-Qaeda operatives sailed a dinghy alongside the Cole and blew themselves up. The explosion put an enormous hole in the side of the ship, injured 39 U.S. naval sailors and killed a further 17.

Following the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, it has become standard practice for warships in high-risk waters to anchor out of visual range over the horizon of the Earth. On approach by small craft, naval sailors take station along the deck with firearms at the ready. Any approaching small craft is then potentially exposed to long-range fire from trained shooters operating from a large stable platform.

“Against small fast attack vessels you can set a boundary at a range,” the maritime security expert said.

“But commercial ships have no defense.”

FreightWaves also spoke to Harley Sparke, executive chairman of Corporate Protection Australia Group. Sparke is a specialist in maritime security. He previously advised maritime box terminal operators on waterfront security during a long-running, country-wide strike by Australian longshoremen. He has also advised the U.S. Navy on visits to Australia and the U.S. Coast Guard on port security around the world.

Guns aboard ships?

Sparke commented on the use of shooters to defend ships – the maritime industry now has experience of such matters following the Somali piracy boom in the years 2007 to 2009.

“There’s a huge amount of debate. There are pros and cons with armed ships. There have been instances of mistaken attacks on fishing vessels,” he said.

“And then there’s the issue of the legality of firearms when ships enter territorial waters,” Sparke says. Under the international law of the sea, the law aboard a ship on the high seas is the law of the country where the ship is registered. Firearms may therefore be perfectly legal aboard a ship sailing on international waters. However, when the ship enters the waters of another country, the law of that nation will apply. And the law of that other country may not allow firearms aboard ships.

“There’s a lot of debate and arm-wrestling over what is right and wrong,” Sparke says on the subject of firearms aboard ship.

He also pointed to the difficulties of defending ships against divers, arguing that they are “unlikely” to be seen, especially during low-light situations. However, he pointed out, the best defense against an explosive device attached to a ship is to deploy a friendly diver to find and remove it.

Torpedo attack is unlikely

Sparke also thought that a torpedo attack on the two tankers is unlikely.

“I would be gobsmacked if there was a torpedo attack. It would take such sophistication and infrastructure resources that it would be unlikely to be the Iranians. I’m more of the view that it was either a limpet mine or an IED (improvised explosive device),” he said.

Sparke said that the attack, given what little is actually known, was sophisticated. He pointed out that, in the region, especially in Yemen, which is in the middle of a civil war, “explosives are piled up everywhere.” Those factors make it possible for actors who are of a mind to do so to carry out an attack.

“There’s likely to be a third-party supplying equipment,” Sparke said.

Ultimately, he agreed with the first maritime security expert in that is is very hard for commercial ships to defend against sophisticated attacks.

“The greatest security risks to commercial shipping is an attack on the ship itself. It’s easy enough to secure a port. But the ability of law enforcement, the military or merchant shipping to defend against such an attack is limited. There’s little hope of merchant ships being able to defend themselves,” he said.

Strait of Hormuz: a chokepoint of world significance

The Strait of Hormuz is a waterway that is about 32 miles at its most narrow point, between the Arabian peninsula on the south of the Persian Gulf and Iran on the north. Safe navigation through Hormuz and over the Gulf of Oman is crucial to the world economy, because at least 19 million barrels a day of crude oil is shipped over them, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Although the world tends to focus on the importance of Hormuz as a choke point for seaborne oil, it is also a significant waterway for a wide range of other cargoes.

The port of Jebel Ali, in the United Arab Emirates, currently handles over 15 million twenty foot equivalent unit shipping containers each year. It is a key regional and international containerized freight hub. Ras Laffan, Qatar, is one of the world’s largest chemical and liquefied natural gas export facilities. There are also considerable general cargo, grain and livestock facilities elsewhere in the Gulf as the countries Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain are wholly located within the sea. Other countries like Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have substantial port facilities that handle a range of cargoes with the enclosed sea.