U.S. Sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) prepare to offer rescue assistance to a burning vessel March 11, 2013, during a transit in the Strait of Hormuz. The William P. Lawrence was deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility to promote maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Torpedoing the Trade Talks: Tokyo, Tehran and the Tankers

Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz have once again escalated this morning following reports that two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous – were involved in an incident that resulted in waterline damage to both vessels. In this piece, we examine whether the incident could be linked to the ongoing Japan-Iran trade talks or whether this is simply another incident in a long-running covert conflict.

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This morning’s events have caused significant speculation over what exactly transpired and who was behind the attacks, although it is looking increasingly likely that some form of hostile action was involved. Some reports, including from a Taiwanese CPC spokesperson, have suggested that torpedoes may have caused the damage to the two vessels, and a spokesperson from Kokuka Sangyo, who own the Kokuka Courageous, reported that two “shells” hit the vessel prior to the explosions. Some military analysts have also suggested that the damage could also be attributed to passive sea mines or actively-emplaced limpet mines.

A US P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is currently reported to be conducting surveillance in the area, and the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge responded to the incident after the US Fifth Fleet received distress calls from the vessels this morning.


Fig 1.0 – Kokuka Courageous current position and route (via MarineTraffic)

The attacks, which caused a 4% rally in oil prices due to conflict fears, comes a day after Houthi rebels injured 26 Saudi Arabian civilians in a strike on Abha airport, which has been attributed to a probable Iranian-supplied cruise missile such as a Soumar ground-to-ground system, given the low trajectory profile used to avoid Saudi Arabian missile defences (something that the crude domestically-produced Burqan-series Houthi missiles are not likely to be capable of doing).  The same day, in a possibly unrelated incident, a fire broke out on the Iranian-owned Platform 9 in the joint Iran-Qatar South Pars gas field

This series of incidents follows suspected sabotage attacks on four tankers off the coast of the UAE in May, and both series of incidents have drawn implications of Iranian involvement given the ongoing regional stand-off between Tehran and Saudi-led Gul Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals. Proxy conflicts in both Yemen and the Syrian theatre, as well as further afield, have fuelled tensions between the two, leading many to fear that the highly important Hormuz Strait – passageway for around 30% of the world’s crude oil shipments – could become an active conflict zone.


Fig 2.0 – Front Altair current position and route (via MarineTraffic)

The timing of these latest attacks is certainly interesting: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently in Tehran and yesterday raised the possibility of once again purchasing Iranian hydrocarbons following a cessation in May due to U.S. pressure surrounding sanctions on Iran. While Japan – which previously sourced as much as 5% of its oil from Iran – was previous given special dispensation by Washington to continue purchasing Iranian oil, it ceased all purchases following increased diplomatic pressure that has accompanied renewed tensions between Tehran and the U.S. This is also interesting when viewed in conjunction with the ongoing Japan-Iran trade talks given that one of the tankers, the Kokuka Courageous is owned by the Japanese shipping firm Kokuka Sangyo. The second vessel, the Front Altair, is currently chartered by the Taiwanese CPC hydrocarbons corporation, and both of these vessels are reported by the Japanese Trade Ministry as carrying “Japan-related cargo“. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe” the incident coinciding with the Japanese visit.

Although the nature of the attacks is murky at this point, with multiple rumours circulating, assumptions (both in favour of conspiracies and simple answers) should be avoided. While many analysts have been quick to point out that this attack fits the pattern of last month’s Iran-attributed sabotage off the UAE coast, there are many regional and international powers who would benefit from derailed Iran-Japan trade talks, and critically there are also elements within Iran itself who would benefit from an undermined Rouhani administration . Although this may simply be another example of cross-Gulf escalation in the ongoing covert-overt conflict between Saudi Arabia (and it’s regional partners) and Iran, there may also be a more complex game at play.

It is also worth noting that each incident in this hotly contested waterway carries a significant risk. While this latest series of incidents sit within previously-precedented norms of controlled escalation between the two rival powers, the risk of a miscalculation sparking a wider crisis is a serious concern at this point, especially if a deeper level of manipulation is involved.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial & technology sectors.

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Photo credit: US Navy/ MC3 Carla Ocampo