TEHRAN (Dispatches) — Iran said Friday two missiles struck one of its oil tankers traveling through the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia, a mysterious assault that spiked oil prices amid months of heightened tensions at sea across the wider Mideast.
The attack took place around 5 a.m. and damaged two storerooms aboard the oil tanker Sabiti, Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum’s Shana news agency said. It also briefly caused an oil leak into the Red Sea near the Saudi port city of Jeddah that later was stopped.
The National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) said the ship was damaged but heading to the Persian Gulf, denying reports it was set ablaze.
The Sabiti’s tracking devices put its location some 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Jeddah late Friday morning, according to data from MarineTraffic.com. The ship is carrying some 1 million barrels of crude oil, according to an analysis from data firm Refinitiv.
Images released by Iran’s Petroleum Ministry appeared to show no damage to the Sabiti visible from its bridge, though they did not show the ship’s sides.
Shana said no ship nor any authority in the area responded to its distress messages.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the incident Friday as an "attack” carried out by those committing "dangerous adventurism.” In a statement, Mousavi said the Sabiti was struck twice in the span of a half hour and an investigation was underway.
"The responsibility of this incident, including the serious environmental pollution, falls on the perpetrators of this reckless act," Mousavi said.
Iranian authorities did not say who they suspected of launching the missiles, suggesting officials were waiting to assess the incident while waiting for a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday.
Lt. Pete Pagano, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet overseeing the Mideast, said authorities there were "aware of reports of this incident,” but declined to comment further.
Russia said it was too early to assign blame for the tanker explosion. China, the top buyer of Iranian oil, said it hoped all parties would work to uphold peace and stability in the region.
Benchmark Brent crude oil spiked over 2% in trading Friday before dropping back down under $60 a barrel.
It comes after a spate of still unexplained attacks on shipping in and around the vital seaway to the Persian Gulf involving Iran and Western powers.
Since May, there have been a series of oil tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.
Friday’s incident renewed questions about safety in the Red Sea, another crucial shipping route. Mousavi said that Iranian tankers have been targeted by "damaging activities” over recent months in the Red Sea.
In May, an Iranian oil tanker carrying more than 1 million barrels of fuel oil suffered a reported malfunction in the same area as the Sabiti came under attack. The kingdom helped the Happiness 1 reach anchorage off Jeddah, where it was repaired and later left.
In its analysis Friday, Dryad Maritime said the incident involving the Happiness 1 bore "the hallmarks of a potential explosive incident.”
Iran said in August another oil tanker, the Helm, faced a technical failure while passing through the Red Sea, without elaborating.
Saudi Arabian dollar bonds slipped to multi-week lows on Friday, as investors fretted about the risk of further tension in the Persian Gulf.
Yemen’s Houthi fighters and their allies in the Yemeni army claimed responsibility for the Saudi attacks in September. Industry sources said Friday’s incident off the Saudi coast could drive up shipping costs, which have already surged.
"War risk insurance premiums for the Red Sea will now likely go up significantly, as will likely the freight (rates),” said Ashok Sharma, managing director of shipbroker BRS Baxi in Singapore.
Tanker rates have soared to multi-year highs in recent weeks after U.S. sanctions on units of Chinese shipping giant COSCO and after the Saudi attacks.
Disruption to shipping through the Red Sea would affect oil passing through the Suez Canal or SUMED crude pipeline, which has capacity for 2.34 million bpd and which runs parallel to the canal. It is used by tankers that cannot navigate the waterway.