Limpet mines seen as likely weapons in attacks on tankers in Gulf of Oman

Inspections in Fujairah port of three of the four tankers holed at the weekend have said that the damage to each vessel indicated that limpet mines, a type of mine attached to the target through magnets, were the cause.

All four ships suffered damage to their sterns.

The damaged ships, included a VLCC and an LR2 belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Bahri, the Andrea Victory and a Sharjah-registered bunker tanker.

Associated Press, citing an unnamed source not authorized to talk to the press, suggested that explosive charges were used, probably deployed by Iranians. A US military team concluded that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives to blow holes up to three metres in radius, just below the waterline in the ships anchored off the coast of the UAE.

The US President warned Iran on Monday May 13th that it would “suffer greatly” if the country did “anything” in the form of an attack.

No evidence has emerged to show that Iran was involved and none of the affected countries has yet assigned blame.

Iran has called for a full investigation into the incident which it described as “worrisome”.

Fujairah is operating normally and no pollution or injuries were reported.

BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner observed that, compared with previous attacks on shipping in the Middle East – the USS Cole in 2000, the Limburg tanker in 2002 and more recent attacks off Yemen – the damage done to four tankers off the UAE coast on Sunday was minimal, with no oil spillage, no flames and no casualties. “But the timing is both suspicious and dangerous”, he said.

This kind of asymmetric attack has been seen as a possibility for Iran against the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the 1980s there was a lengthy ‘tanker war’ because of the Iran-Iraq War with attacks on oil tankers by both sides.

But the attacks did not have a huge macro-impact; it was many years before the first tanker was sunk and the most noticeable result was higher insurance rates for shippers. However, at that time there was considerable spare crude oil production capacity globally. That is not the case today.

The US had previously warned that Iran or its proxies could target maritime traffic in the region. In recent days the US has deployed warships to counter “clear indications” of threats from the country.

Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has also updated the military’s plans for an Iranian attack on US forces there, according to a report in the New York Times.

Iran dismissed the allegation that it could be targeting maritime traffic as “nonsense”.

The Strait of Hormuz is a major chokepoint, making it an attractive target for those wishing to disrupt oil trade. However, its “obviousness” also means that a great deal of military hardware is there to protect shipping going through it. The major concern appeared to be that, if the Iranian government was found to be responsibility (or even claimed it), and the US responded as the US President promised, the region could become an area of major conflict.