Iranian tankers and covert attacks

Iranian tankers and covert attacks

March 13, 2021

By Nat South for the Saker Blog

The WSJ published an exclusive article on covert Israeli targeting of Iranian ships and shipments going to Syria, going back several years. Here is the headline:

“WSJ News Exclusive | Israeli Strikes Target Iranian Oil Bound for Syria”

To shed some light on the matter and give some broader context to the WSJ exclusive, I produced a draft visual timeline of notable events, of maritime incidents occurring to Iranian ships or those connected to Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, as well as the timeline of some of the highly publicised sabotage attacks in the MEG / Arabian Sea / Gulf of Oman region.  The visual is not a complete list of the incidents but just an outline.

Figure 1 Figure 1 – Timeline of notable maritime incidents

Obviously, there is still chunks of data / information missing on particular events, given the numbers of attacks cited in the WSJ article, if the figure of at least 12 attack is a rough baseline to work from:

  • 3 in 2019
  • 6 in 2020
  • 3 (?) in 2021

The curious case of the oil spill

One ship that I did not specifically list is the Iranian connected, Panama flagged tanker ‘Emerald’, which the Israeli Environmental ministry recently accused of being the source of the catastrophic oil spill off the Eastern Med on the 16th of February, causing the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history. It is probable that this was not another targeted ship, although as it stands, Israel has not commented on the WSJ report.

It was certainly a little more than unusual for Israel to issue a news embargo on the name of the ship. The ‘Emerald’ had indeed headed to Syria from the Suez Canal, yet managed to carry out a Ship-to-Ship transfer, (STS), off Syria, without a hitch and also return to Suez without any noticeable traces of causing pollution. It sure gets weirder. Stalely, the West MSM went into a whirl reporting the ‘news’ about an Iranian linked ship, without even batting an eye to find out more about any evidence to actually prove the case.

It is rather strange and a bit more than a coincidence that this ‘bombshell’ revelation by the WSJ is made by US officials no less! But the WSJ alludes to an attack, that oddly matches the description of the incident suffered by the ‘Emerald’:

In an episode last month, suspected Israeli operatives attached a limpet mine to attack an Iranian vessel as it anchored near Lebanon to deliver Iran oil to Syria, according to the first shipping professional. Israel’s military declined to comment on the incident.

If it wasn’t the Emerald, judging from satellite imagery and maritime OSINT articles, then who was it?

The incident outlined in the WSJ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back due to the consequences and repercussions of this attack. Did a situation get out of hand, so much so that it incurred Washington’s displeasure or was Washington rattled? There is certainly more to this story than a spate of attacks, as Washington officialdom seemed not to be too bothered about Israeli up to recently.

Commentary

The WSJ exclusive makes for an interesting shift in perspective on maritime murky goings on in the Middle East and clearly demonstrates the reckless hubris of Israeli military operations, (putting both feet at the same time in the mouth), that proved to have a much greater and significant consequence for the whole region. I would like to underline that such antagonistic attacks and retaliatory actions are ultimately self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

In light of this revelation of the clandestine operations, this raises questions regarding the series of sabotage attacks in the Arabian Sea back in 2019. A revaluation is also needed in order to understand the wider context of such strange attacks, as outlined back in an article in 2019, [1].

It is not surprising that Israel has carried out naval operations against ships carrying Iranian oil bound for Syria and also cargo ships suspected of circumventing weapons sanctions. This MO fits in with its overall posture towards Syria and Iran, principally in carrying out air strikes against what it sees as “Iranian regime” units operating in Syria and doing everything it can in order to weaken the Syrian government.

This highlights just the tip of the iceberg so to speak, in a barely concealed war against Iran. These Israeli operations are nevertheless a clear expansion of hostilities in the Mideast, so maybe Washington drew a line in the sand by allowing the officials to carry out limited “damage control”. Not that Washington will be able reign in such Israeli hubris.

Maritime incidents

Noticeably, the exclusive report came a day after an alleged attack on an Iranian containership far off the northern Israeli coast on the 10th March.  The ‘Shahr e Kord’ was heading to Syria, when a fire broke onboard, with several containers located on the bow damaged.  The ship did slow down and change course, (but eventually went to Baniyas, (next to the Russian naval base, so it may have been inspected by the Russian military). The ship operator, IRISL, called it “terrorist act” and provided this statement:

After an explosive object hit the hull, a brief fire broke out…which was immediately contained by the timely efforts of the captain and crew of the ship“.

It is noteworthy that many of the previous incidents have not been publicly acknowledged by Iranian authorities.

AIS screenshot

Image 1 – AIS track of Shahr E Kord 10th March 2021

A kite flying in the sky Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Image 2 – AIS screenshot of track at time of incident

There are comments suggesting that this was some kind of response to the attack on the Bahamian flagged but Israel-owned MV ‘Helios Ray’ RO-RO vehicle carrier in the Gulf of Oman, since the timing between the two is relatively close.  Having said that, it doesn’t make much sense in relation to the 2019 tanker attacks with limpet mines, with Iran blamed, because these happened before the suspected attacks on the Iranian tankers in the Red Sea. Unless… it is was a dry run.

Yet, surmising that the attack on the MV ‘Helios Ray’ could be equally considered as retaliatory operations, which Iranian ships got attacked beforehand?

One incident that stands out is the 2019 attack on the ‘Sabiti‘, as it fits into the pattern of a furtive attack which caused a 200+ km long oil spill in the Red Sea, as can be seen in this image. The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) reported that it was struck by 2 rockets off the Saudi coast. Unlike those that took place in June 2019, this unusual and unidentified attack barely raised a whisper in the MSM, helpfully swept under the carpet under the cover of the Yemeni conflict.

The 2019 attacks in the Fujairah anchorage were strange, as was the attack on the MV ‘Helios Ray’ last month. The resulting damage was visually spectacular, but it was limited, and it did not cripple or sink the ships. Comments made regarding the placing of limpet mines under the waterline by naval divers are not incorrect in a historical context, but that doesn’t stop someone onboard a small boat from placing one just above the waterline, as a demonstration of a show of force, to prove a point.

The aftermath between these two events contrasted greatly with what happened to the laden tanker ‘Sabiti’ and also the ‘Kokura Courageous’ and ‘Altair’, with accompanying dramatic satellite images of oil spills and images of onboard fires.

Predictably, a series of attacks in the Red Sea and in the Arabian Sea continue to be seen by the US, KSA and other Gulf states, as being the handiwork of “Iranian-backed” groups, as this article suggests. As always is the case with these attacks, officials or authorities cite that it is either weapons that match an Iranian model or the use of technology with Iranian ties.

In what appears to be a new form and expanded re-run of the 80s ‘tanker wars”, now civilian mariners have to face the risk of limpet mines, explosion-laden drone boats, as well as sea mines, not to mention the risk of ship seizures from both the US (*) and Iran.

Interestingly, Israel has deployed one of its Dolphin-II Class submarine to the Red Sea. Although capable of deploying special forces, the recent photos of the submarine in Eilat does not show that it has the Special Operations Forces (SOF) hangar on it. That does not mean to say that Israel isn’t using its submarines to support such covert operations.

Russian Navy

According to this USNI article, the Russian Navy has been seen escorting an Iranian sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean tanker bound to Syria, in Oct 2020. To note that this coincides with a Russian Navy exercise near to Tartus, “to ensure the calm passage of civilian vessels”. Part of the exercise was to respond to a submarine attack on a merchant ship and also “to monitor the situation at depth and on the surface, and to create a safe area for the passage of merchant ships.”

Maybe a one-off exercise or the start of ad hoc escorts of tankers? Certainly, it indicates that Russia was aware of ships being targeted. Whether it is also the case that ships heading up the Red Sea also get escorted is not known, although at the time of writing this, the corvette ‘Stoiky’ made a port call to Oman, so there is a very limited Russian Navy presence in the area. The Project 22160 class large patrol ship ‘Dmitry Rogachev’, is currently forward deployed to Tartus, and it is ideally placed to carry out escort work and close-to-shore missions. Even closer to shore, is the deployment of the aptly designated anti-saboteur Grachanok class and the fast Raptor boats.

The concern over covert operations is hinted at several times, with a publicised joint Russian & Syrian exercises at Tartus that took place back in December, aimed at repelling an attack by saboteurs on the Russian base.

The outcome is that these exercises can equally apply to the nearby Baniyas terminal, where the Iranian oil is delivered since the undersea pipelines from the offshore mooring points suffered underwater damage from suspected limpet mines, (June 2019 , January 2020). Similarly, the naval exercise in October 2020 was also about responding to a potential threat of SOF “group of swimmers” that could have been deployed from a submarine.

Overall, both the covert attacks on merchant shipping and the sabotage of undersea pipelines are arguably significant incidents as they can have a catastrophic environmental consequence as well economic impact on a vital hub. It will remain to be seen whether the public disclosure made in the WSJ article will change anything, in all likelihood, these clandestine actions be just simply glossed over. It could raise the stakes even further, as Israel may well start overt naval operations. Lasty, it will remain to be seen how Iran will respond to this announcement and how the Russian naval posture in the region will evolve accordingly.

More information and analysis of this later as any details come to the fore.

NB (*) It turns out that the US actually seized a cargo of Iraqi oil, with a company owned by the Emirate of Fujairah claiming a stake of the cargo. Who needs enemies with ‘friends’ like that? So, the maverick global sheriff alleges, seizes, (should that be steals), without any qualms whatsoever and then gets it completely wrong.

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