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Jun 13, 2019 | 12:05 GMT

3 mins read

Strait of Hormuz: An Attack on Oil Tankers Threatens to Deepen the U.S.-Iran Standoff

(Stratfor)
The Big Picture

The United States may not ultimately desire a war with Iran, but it is making no compromises on its campaign of exerting "maximum pressure" on Tehran over its nuclear program and regional policies. In response, Iran has vowed to retaliate, suggesting it could attack U.S. forces through its proxies elsewhere in the Middle East and attempt to close the vital Strait of Hormuz to shipping. Incidents like a June 13 attack on oil tankers near the strait could be the latest salvo in a — so far — non-military battle between Washington and Tehran.

What Happened

A month and a day after an attack with limpet mines on four tankers off Fujairah near the Strait of Hormuz, another more serious attack has occurred in the approach to the body of water. Two tankers, one a Panama-flagged vessel named the Kokuka Courageous and the other a Marshall Islands-flagged boat, the Front Altair, suffered heavy damage. The incident injured one crew member on the Kokuka Courageous, which was also forced to cease sailing as the attack opened a breach in the hull above the water line. The Front Altair, meanwhile, appeared to suffer even more damage, as news reports showed the vessel on fire and adrift. With Iran and the United States in a standoff, incidents such as these could ignite a military confrontation.

Why It Matters

With Iran and the United States in a standoff — as part of which Washington has subjected Tehran to heavy economic and diplomatic sanctions, prompting the Islamic republic to vow retaliation — incidents such as these could ignite a military confrontation. The United States and its allies, for instance, linked the Fujairah limpet mine attack to Iran, although the latter has professed its innocence. The latest incident initially caused energy prices to spike by nearly 5 percent (before they settled back down), demonstrating how a significant military clash between the two countries could precipitate even wider economic and energy shocks. The U.S. 5th Fleet has announced that it has dispatched vessels to assist the tankers. At a minimum, the incident will likely reinforce U.S. Central Command's requests for even more U.S. forces to the region, further stoking tensions.

With Iran and the United States in a standoff, incidents such as these could ignite a military confrontation.

The Context

The location and nature of the incident have fueled further speculation about Iran's direct involvement. The attack occurred near the Iranian coast on the approach to the Strait of Hormuz — a significant distance from Iran's Yemeni allies, the Houthis, who have previously targeted shipping in the region as part of their fight against the Saudi-led coalition that also opposes Tehran. While not inconceivable, it would be exceedingly difficult for the Houthis to position themselves to launch a strike like this. Moreover, initial reports suggest the perpetrators used heavy military equipment, such as torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles or — albeit less likely — naval mines; while the Houthis possess such equipment, their bases are too far away to easily dispatch such assets to the area without detection. Iran, by contrast, could easily strike such targets given its proximity and available weaponry. Naturally, however, just because some signs point to Iran doesn't mean that Tehran took direct action against the tankers off its coast. But as more details emerge, so too might certainty about who was behind the attack.

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