Suspected tanker attacks risk sparking conflict: analysts

Dubai (AFP) –


Suspected attacks on tankers at the mouth of the oil-rich Gulf threaten to block vital crude supplies to the world and trigger an all-out conflict involving Iran, analysts said Thursday.

The latest incident left two tankers in flames on Thursday in waters near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel that is a chokepoint for more than a third of the globe's seaborne oil exports.

It comes just a month after another mysterious incident in which four tankers -- two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati -- were damaged nearby off the Emirati port of Fujairah.

"We are in a dangerous moment in the region with this emerging pattern of attacks," said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with International Crisis Group.

"Any miscalculation or misunderstanding risks a spiral toward more direct confrontation," she told AFP.

"In the meantime, the region's conflicts are increasingly polluted by the regional quagmire of tension between Iran on the one hand and the United States and its regional allies on another."

Thursday's suspected attacks follow accusations from the United States that Saudi Arabia's regional arch-rival Iran was "almost certainly" behind the May 12 sabotage attacks off Fujairah.

They also come after Iran-aligned Huthi rebels in Yemen claimed attacks on a Saudi oil pipeline and Abha airport in the southwest of the kingdom.

The incidents were harming the efforts of Gulf states to "push back on the image of a dangerous region for investment and trade", said Karen E. Young, resident scholar of American Enterprise Institute.

- Growing risk factor -

"Without certainty on who is making these attacks on tankers, and for what purpose, the risk factor continues to increase," Young said.

"The Huthi attacks on Saudi territory are the southern flank, making the entire Arabian peninsula nearing conflict zone status."

The stakes are high for the Gulf states and Iran and Iraq, which together produce over a quarter of the world's oil output and export about 20 million barrels of oil per day mostly through the Strait of Hormuz.

Thursday's attacks were the latest sign that geopolitical tensions were mounting, and there was a "significant and increasing risk that events morph into outright conflict," London-based Capital Economics said in a commentary.

"It might only take an error or miscommunication to spark a broader conflict. And the increased regularity of attacks means that the risk of this is growing," it warned.

The Saudi pipeline attack exposed that even alternative routes to the Strait of Hormuz were vulnerable, Capital Economics said.

"If conflict further disrupted shipping routes or resulted in damage to oil facilities, oil prices could spike to well over $100" a barrel, it said.

- Iran 'hitting back'? -

Oil prices shot up by more than four percent on Thursday soon after the suspected attacks before subsiding slightly, reflecting how volatile the market can be at the time of geopolitical tensions.

"The attack will serve to deepen tensions between Iran and the United States, which have gradually escalated throughout 2019," industry analyst Dryad Global said.

"It is a realistic possibility that Iran or a proxy were behind this attack, however the situation remains fluid and there are a number of competing narratives that require examining," it said.

Iran's oil exports, which hovered around 2.5 million bpd a year ago, have already dropped substantially due to the resumption of US sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.

Analyst Ilan Goldenberg also said Iran was most likely to have carried out Thursday's attack as a result of being squeezed by US sanctions.

"This is purely a function of Trump's escalatory 'maximum pressure' campaign. You can't just keep poking someone & expect them to sit around & take it. Eventually (they) hit back," he tweeted.

"I still do not think we are on the brink of war. But chances of conflict just went up," said Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security.