Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers had been damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” in the Gulf, as Mike Pompeo rushed to Brussels to hold emergency talks with his European partners about the mounting tensions in the region.
The US secretary of state will discuss the alleged attacks on the oil tankers and the status of the threat posed by Iran after its decision to pull out from parts of the nuclear deal signed in 2015.
The escalating rhetoric is raising fears of a confrontation between Iran and the US, which is backed by its key Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Pompeo scrapped a planned visit to Moscow in favour of the Brussels meeting, but will go ahead with talks with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in Sochi.
No side has taken responsibility for the sabotage, and mystery surrounds the identity of the ships.
Tehran called for an investigation into the attacks and spoke of “adventurism” by foreign players to disrupt maritime security.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, called for calm in the Gulf, as he said there was a danger of conflict erupting by accident.
The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia condemned “the acts of sabotage, which targeted commercial and civilian vessels near the territorial waters of the United Arab Emirates”.
A source said: “This criminal act constitutes a serious threat to the security and safety of maritime navigation and adversely impacts regional and international peace and security.”
The Saudi energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, said the attacks on the Saudi-owned vessels occurred on Sunday at 6am, but Riyadh had yet to produce photographic evidence.
“One of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States,” Falih said. “Fortunately, the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels.”
Shipping industry sources identified the Saudi vessels as Bahri-owned very large crude carrier tanker Amjad and crude tanker Al Marzoqah. Bahri, Saudi’s national shipping carrier, has yet to comment.
The UAE first said on Sunday that four commercial vessels of various nationalities had been targeted by acts of sabotage off the emirate of Fujairah.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the Emirates would investigate the “deliberate sabotage” of the ships. “The investigation will be conducted in a professional manner, the facts will be made clear, and we have our own readings and conclusions,” he tweeted.
Fujairah port is the only Emirati terminal located on the Arabian Sea coast, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, through which most Gulf oil exports pass. Almost all the oil exports of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Iran itself – at least 15m barrels per day – are shipped through the strait. The world’s largest crude oil storage centre is also being built in Fujairah.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait in case of a military confrontation with the US. The US has largely dismissed the threat, but has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region, adding to the sense of a build-up to war.
One of the two tankers that was attacked was on its way to be loaded with crude oil from a Saudi terminal for customers in the US, Falih said.
Oil prices rose on world markets on Monday with benchmark Brent North Sea crude up 1.8% at $71.90 (£55.18) a barrel in London.
Abbas Mousavi, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, expressed concern over the incident and its possible consequences. “The incidents in the Sea of Oman are alarming and regrettable,” he said in a statement.
He warned against “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security” and called for “the vigilance of regional states in the face of any adventurism by foreign elements”, the statement said.
Adding to the sense of confusion, the UAE had on Sunday categorically denied reports on Iranian and pro-Hezbollah Lebanese social media of massive explosions in oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah, whose port on Monday was calm with no signs of damage.
The Pentagon said on Friday that it was deploying an amphibious assault ship and a Patriot missile battery to the Middle East to bolster an aircraft carrier force sent to counter alleged Iranian threats.
The increasing tensions come after Iran said on Wednesday it had stopped respecting limits on its nuclear activities agreed in 2015 with the US, the EU, China and Russia. Tehran said it was responding to the failure of the EU to combat sweeping unilateral sanctions that Washington has reimposed since it quit the agreement one year ago.
The EU remains at odds with Pompeo, but has so far come up with no effective means of circumventing US secondary sanctions, a failure that has prompted Iran to take its first steps to leave the 2015 agreement.
Pompeo is likely to urge Europe to recognise that the deal has effectively collapsed, and to reimpose the sanctions it lifted at the time the deal was signed. He will also point to Iranian activity in Iraq, and claim Iranian forces are targeting US personnel.