(Reuters) – Attacks on Saudi tankers and other ships off the United Arab Emirates coast this week reveal vulnerabilities in the security of a major oilway road among rising tensions between the United States, Iran and Gulf Arab states.
The operation near the Hormuz route seemed designed to test the decisions of the United States and its Sunni Muslim allies without triggering war, after Washington tightened sanctions against Iran and reached its military presence nearby.
The UAE has not characterized the sabotage or blamed anyone, but US national security agencies believe that proxies who are sympathetic to or working for Iran may have been behind it, an American official said. Tehran has distanced itself from the event, which no one has claimed.
"This is a pin-dot event, a small needle-like jab at the sea trade that enters the Hormuz section," said Gerry Northwood, risk management chairman and security firm MAST.
The attack took place outside the Fujairah emirate just outside Strait, a narrow waterway that separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, where a fifth of global oil consumption passes from Middle Eastern producers.
Two days later, Saudi Arabia said that armed drones had beaten two oil pump stations in the kingdom, an attack which was claimed by the Iranian-adjusted Houthis in neighboring Yemen.
The US Navy Bahrain-based fifth fleet is tasked with protecting commercial vessels in the area. The British and French fleets maintain a presence, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have high-tech shipping capabilities.
But the Gulf states in the Gulf are struggling to build an effective system to defend themselves against drones and low-tech sabotage attempts, Eurasia Group said in a note.
"There are hundreds, if not a few thousand small boats moving in that area every day. Many of these ships are smugglers who work between Iran and the Gulf states," says Norman Roule, a senior senior US intelligence officer. It is difficult, but not impossible, to track down some small vessels that may have been involved in the operation. [UAEmustsendasignaltoassuretheshippingindustrythatFujairahissafeanditwillnothappenagain"aWesterndiplomatinAbuDhabisaid
More than three days ago, some information has been provided about where the ships were when they were attacked, what type of weapon was used and who did it.
Nav igation data indicated at least some of the vessels may have been within nine nautical miles from the shore, well within the UAE territorial waters. Saudi Arabia's energy minister has said that at least one of them was further out in the UAE's exclusive economic zone where international law is largely applicable.
Reuters and other journalists taken on a trip outside the Fujairah coast saw a hole at the waterline in Hull of a Norwegian ship, with the metal torn inward. A Saudi tanker they showed showed no sign of major damage.
Security sources told Reuters that pictures suggest that the damage was probably caused by lime mines that are attached near the waterline with less than 4 kg of explosives. One source said that the level of co-ordination and use of mines would likely exclude militant groups such as al-Qaeda.
"It's not those who are looking for publicity, it's someone who wants to score a point without necessarily pointing in any direction," said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor of Jane Defense Weekly. "It is below the threshold (for war)."
Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at Geneva's security policy center, said the attacks could be a message that Iran has to interfere with traffic. [1
Both attacks targeted alternative pathways for oil to bypass Hormuz. Fujairah Port is a terminal for the crude pipeline from Abu Dhabi's oil changes in Habshan. The Saudi Arabian East-West line goes raw from the eastern fields to the Yanbu Harbor, north of Bab al-Mandeb.
The head of Iran's revolutionary guards said last year that Tehran would block exports through the waterways if the countries listened to US talks to stop buying Iranian oil.
US officials have said that closing the route would cross a "red line" and promised the action to resume it.
The waterway separates Iran and Oman, connecting the bay to Oman and the Arabian Gulf. The route is 33 km wide at its narrowest point, but shipping is only two miles wide in both directions.
Even during the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980-1988, when the two sides tried to disrupt oil exports by attacking ships in the so-called Tanker War, shipping did not stop, even though insurance prices nailed.
The JBC Energy Research Center said that Fujairah would continue to be seen as a reliable bunker hub, especially with an American strike group arriving in the region and fleets from the UK, France and China that can help.
"Whatever is behind it, Rickli says," it contributes to increased tensions in the region and leads to a situation where an event can trigger a bigger response. "