May 20, 2019

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Saudi Arabia Says 2 Oil Tankers Damaged in Sabotage Attacks

Saudi Arabia Says 2 Oil Tankers Damaged in Sabotage Attacks
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said on Monday that two Saudi oil tankers had been sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, raising new fears of growing tensions in the region involving Iran, the two Gulf countries’ avowed enemy.

The tankers were damaged in an attack on Sunday, according to the Saudi minister, Khalid al-Falih, and sustained “significant damage.” The United Arab Emirates said that a total of four vessels had been sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates assigned blame, made public any evidence of an attack, or described the nature of the sabotage. But even the hint of armed conflict sends shudders through a region already on edge from threats and counterthreats, and through a global economy heavily dependent on the free flow of oil from the gulf.

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “I think what we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking.”

The claim of sabotage comes as the United States is deploying an aircraft carrier, bombers and an antimissile battery to the Gulf to deter what the Trump administration has said is the possibility of Iranian aggression. The Trump administration contends that Iran is mobilizing proxy groups in the Middle East to attack American forces, as the United States is ramping up economic sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Brussels on Monday to discuss Iran with European Union leaders, skipping what would have been the first day of a two-day trip to Russia.

The administration recently moved to cut off Iran’s all-important oil revenues by stopping five of the country’s biggest customers from buying its oil, announcing at the same time that the United States would work with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to supply those customers with an alternative source of oil.

The American pressure tactics are aimed at forcing Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear accord that it struck with the United States and other world powers, which President Trump exited in hopes of getting a better deal from Iran. But Iran has swatted back, announcing last week that it would restart the production of nuclear centrifuges and begin accumulating nuclear material again.

Amid the mutual escalations, the United States Maritime Administration had warned on Thursday of heightened threats from Iran in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Persian Gulf. It said there was an “increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies” could target oil tankers, other commercial ships or military vessels belonging to the United States or its allies.

The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important narrow passage for oil shipments. The United States Energy Information Administration estimated in 2016 that nearly a third of all seaborne-traded crude oil and liquid petroleum products goes through the strait. Exports from major producers like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia move through the strait, so any threat of disruption is likely to alarm oil traders.

Mr. al-Falih said in a statement that one of the oil tankers sabotaged on Sunday was on its way to pick up Saudi oil to be delivered to the United States. He said that there were no casualties and that no oil was spilled.

The Foreign Ministry of the United Arab Emirates said officials were investigating the events, which it said had occurred in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the country.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates assigned blame for the attacks. But both nations are locked in a regional power struggle with Iran.

According to an Iranian state news agency, the Islamic Republic News Agency, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry seemed to brush away any suggestions that Iran was behind the sabotage, warning “against any conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers to undermine stability and security in the region.”

The spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, expressed concern about the apparent sabotage, the news agency reported, saying on Monday that a “regretful incident happened for some ships on Sunday.”

Fujairah, the emirate where the sabotage is said to have occurred, is a vital fueling point for tankers and other shipping.

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