Smoke billows from a tanker said to have been attacked off the coast of Oman, at an undisclosed location. Picture: AFP PHOTO/ HO/IRIB
Smoke billows from a tanker said to have been attacked off the coast of Oman, at an undisclosed location. Picture: AFP PHOTO/ HO/IRIB

Dubai — Two oil tankers were damaged on Thursday in a suspected attack near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, stoking fears that high-stakes diplomatic efforts won’t avert a military confrontation between the US and Iran. Oil prices surged.

The incidents, including an attack on a Japanese-operated vessel, were the second in a month to hit ships near the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint, through which about 40% of the world’s seaborne oil travels. They come as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, a rare ally of both US President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders, visits Tehran in an effort to ease tensions.

“Even in the absence of ironclad evidence, the US and its allies will point the finger at Iran,” said Fawaz A Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. “These incidents are a bad omen because they point to a calculated escalation that tells us both sides are hunkering down.”

The prospects of a conflict have spiked since the Trump administration tightened its sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early May. A year ago, Trump abandoned the 2015 deal that was meant to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and re-imposed sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic Republic to rein in its military programme and proxy militias.

Facing economic catastrophe, Iran has threatened to retreat from the accord itself unless European parties throw it an economic lifeline. Its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, told Abe on Thursday that his country would not repeat the “bitter experience” of talks with the US

High-stakes diplomacy

The manager of one tanker, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, said it was sailing in international waters when it was damaged by an explosion, whose cause “is as yet unknown”. The Norway Maritime Authority said there were three detonations on board. The ship had loaded a cargo of naphtha in Abu Dhabi and was bound for Taiwan, a company official said.

A distress call over VHF radio from the Front Altair said the ship was “under attack and on fire”, said Donald MacLeod, a navigation officer on a vessel about 72km away on the Oman Sea. “They had to abandon ship.”

Kokuka Sangyo, the Japanese operator of the other ship, said it was attacked twice, three hours apart, forcing the crew to evacuate. The tanker was carrying 25,000 tonnes of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Asia.

Brent oil crude soared as much as 4.5% and was trading at $62.07 a barrel at 10.42am in London. Stocks in Saudi Arabia and Dubai were down more than 1%.

The incidents come a day after Iran-backed rebels in Yemen fired a missile at a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people. The projectile crashed into the arrivals hall, damaging ceilings and windows and causing a fire, though the airport was able to keep functioning with only two flights canceled. Last month, Houthi rebels hit oil infrastructure hundreds of kilometres inside Saudi Arabia, forcing it to temporarily close an oil pipeline.

Iran has distanced itself from any attack.

“Iran is concerned by the suspicious events around commercial tankers related to Japan,” foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi, was quoted as saying on Fars News Agency. “We see this as going against efforts from within the region and beyond to reduce tensions.”

Oil tankers last became a target in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea during the so-called Tanker War in the 1980s — a sideshow of the Iran-Iraq conflict. Between 1981 and 1988, a total of 451 ships suffered some sort of attack in the region from Iraqi or Iranian forces, according to a report from the US Naval Institute.