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Iran news: "Sabotage attacks" on Saudi oil tankers stoke fears of "conflict happening by accident"

"Sabotage attacks" on Saudi oil tankers
  • Saudi Arabia claims "sabotage attacks" left two of its oil tankers damaged off the coast of the UAE, not far from the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping channel.
  • Nobody is casting blame yet, but it comes just days after the U.S. warned that "Iran or its proxies" could target commercial vessels in the region.
  • Britain says the incident highlights the danger of "a conflict happening by accident" between the U.S. and Iran.
  • Mike Pompeo was meeting European leaders as they try to keep the nuclear deal viable months after President Trump abandoned it.
  • A U.S. defense official told CBS News that a team of U.S. investigators was on their way to the UAE to help look into the incidents.

Saudi Arabia said Monday two of its oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in attacks that caused "significant damage" to the vessels. One of the ships was en route to pick up Saudi oil to take to the United States, a Saudi government minister said.

The announcement by the kingdom's energy minister, Khalid al-Falih, came on the heels of a new warning to sailors in the region from the U.S. While no blame was cast at Iran or any other nation for the alleged attack on the ships, it fuelled fears that a miscommunication or small act of antagonism in the politically charged region could quickly escalate into a full conflict.

Late last week the U.S. Maritime Administration warned commercial shipping companies that from the beginning of May there had been, "an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."    

The statement from the Saudi government on the alleged "sabotage attacks" off the United Arab Emirates port at Fujairah came just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets aired false reports of explosions at the port, which sits less than 100 miles from the mouth of the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping channel. Emirati officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible.

A U.S. defense official told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin that the UAE had requested American assistance investigating the incidents, and the U.S. was sending a team of investigators to help.  

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A total of four tankers sustained some damage on Sunday, according to UAE officials. One of the others was Norwegian owned, but officials in that country did not immediately confirm any links to the apparent attacks on the Saudi-flagged vessels.

Early Sunday, the U.S. Maritime Administration issued a new warning to sailors about the alleged sabotage, while stressing "the incident has not been confirmed." It urged shippers to exercise caution in the area for the next week.

It remains unclear if the previous warning from the U.S. agency is the same perceived threat, or part of it, that prompted the White House to order the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and the B-52 bombers to the region on May 4.

Mulvaney says U.S. "not going to war in Iran" amid rising tensions

"One of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco's customers in the United States," al-Falih said. "Fortunately, the attack didn't lead to any casualties or oil spill; however, it caused significant damage to the structures of the two vessels."

Saudi Arabia did not identify the vessels involved, nor did it say whom it suspected of carrying out the alleged sabotage.

The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees the region, did not immediately offer comment. Emirati officials declined to answer questions from The Associated Press, saying their investigation is ongoing.

Iran calls for details

Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Iran's Foreign Ministry called for further clarification about what exactly happened with the Saudi tankers. The ministry' spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying there should be more information about the incident.

Mousavi also warned against any "conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers" and "adventurism by foreigners" to undermine the maritime region's stability and security.

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An Iranian lawmaker suggested in the country's parliament on Monday that the attacks on the Saudi ships could have been carried out by unspecified "saboteurs" from an also unspecified third country.

Fears of an escalation

Even without any actual accusation that Iran or its "proxies" were behind the purported attack on the Saudi tankers, the incident clearly demonstrated how high tensions are in the region, and some other countries were quick to express their concern.

Britain's Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risks of an "accident" sparking a conflict between the United States and Iran.

"We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended," Hunt said in Brussels, where U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived to discuss the Iran standoff with European counterparts.

"What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking," Hunt said, adding that would share those concerns Monday with his European partners and Pompeo. 

Underlying the regional risk, the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the alleged sabotage as a "serious escalation" in an overnight statement.

"Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger," Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said. Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen's internationally recognized government similarly condemned the alleged sabotage.

Tensions have risen in the year since President Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, restoring American sanctions that have pushed Iran's economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

Europe clings to the nuke deal

The Brussels meeting on Monday was intended for the European leaders to thrash out ways to keep the Iran nuclear deal afloat.

The meeting between the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini comes as the Europeans struggle to keep financial supply lines open to Iran to offset the impact of U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic's shattered economy.

"We in Europe agree that this treaty is necessary for our security," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels. "Nobody wants Iran to get possession of an atomic bomb and that's been achieved so far."

Mogherini said the talks would focus on "how to continue to best support the full implementation of the nuclear deal."

The White House has put mounting pressure on its European allies to abandon the nuclear deal, which was hammered out by former President Barack Obama, saying it intends to bring Iran's petroleum product income to "zero."

Pompeo's State Department billed Monday's talks with European officials in Brussels as an opportunity "to discuss recent threatening actions and statements" by Iran.

Germany's Maas said he told Pompeo on Monday that he and his European counterparts "do not want it to come to a military conflict (between the U.S. and Iran)." 

The top German diplomat avoided criticizing the Trump administration, saying Europe and Washington both wanted to ensure peace in the Middle East, but admitting that they were "going about it
in different ways... taking different courses."