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Sabotage of tankers off UAE’s Fujairah port raises Emirati, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, and US military escalation risks

14 May 2019
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Fujairah Port on 13 May 2019. Source: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

On 12 May 2019, the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that four ships were subject to "sabotage attacks" off the coast of Fujairah in UAE territorial waters. Subsequent video evidence showed that a Norwegian product tanker, the MT Andrea Victory , had a hole in its hull right above the water line, consistent with an improvised explosive device (IED) planted from a small boat. The Saudi Arabian tanker Al Marzoqah was shown without damage. Imagery of the two other tankers has not yet been made available.

  • A key war risks indicator will be the release by the US, or its Gulf allies, of verifiable intelligence demonstrating Iran's responsibility . Iran has recently publicly stated its readiness to carry out similar attacks if it came under threat and it has the capability to carry them out on a deniable basis. If Iran was responsible, the attacks were most likely a demonstration by Iran that it could target ships off Fujairah with small IEDs using its fleet of small boats, indicating that it could, in a conflict scenario, cause significant damage. Fujairah is an alternative route through which some oil could be exported out of the Gulf if the Strait of Hormuz was closed, even though it is within range of Iran's anti-shipping missiles. At the time of writing, AP had reported that an unnamed US official had confirmed that a military team's initial assessment indicated that explosives had been used by Iran, or one of its allies, to breach the ship's hulls, but no additional evidence has yet been provided. Proof of Iranian complicity would, at the least, be grounds to bring the issue to the UN Security Council and impose additional sanctions. It would also raise the likelihood of the European Union intensifying sanctions against Iran, accelerating the collapse of the JCPOA.

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