According to Iran’s state news agency, the Iranian tanker Sabiti, owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company, was hit by two missiles, at 5am and 5.20am on Friday October 11.

However, there is no evidence that the hull of the tanker was hit by missiles, as alleged, in the Red Sea off the Saudi port of Jeddah.

Some photographs have emerged purporting to show the Sabiti with a single fire on its port side near the waterline. If a missile was fired, the missile would have hit further up on the superstructure of the tanker.

There is no sign of a second strike against the ship.

Iranian Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei said Saturday that Tehran was investigating the incident as an “attack”, without attributing blame to any party.

Three possibilities

Then what happened? This is more difficult to say. There are at least three possibilities.

The first possibility is that the tanker had a fire of some sort below decks that led to an explosion. Such a fire on an oil tanker would be unusual, but not out of the realm of possibility.

A blast on an oil tanker in South Korea in the port of Ulsan last September injured 18 people. The tanker was owned by Stolt-Nielsen out of London but flew a Cayman Island flag. Ten of the sailors were Russian. The ship was carrying ultra-light crude oil, but no cause was confirmed for the explosion and fire.

Meanwhile, Iran lost an oil tanker in a collision off China’s east coast on January 5, 2018. Around 32 crew members were unaccounted for and probably died in the wreck. After floating adrift, the ship exploded and burned.

And in January this year a Vietnam-registered oil and chemical tanker, Aulac Fortune, experienced a severe fire off Hong Kong’s Lamma Island. Photos of the burning vessel closely resemble the fire on the Sabiti. The Aulac Fortune had already unloaded its cargo in Guangdong. On its return trip three different sections of the ship exploded. The ship was carrying refined unleaded gasoline (petrol), not crude oil. It is possible that volatile fumes from the already delivered cargo were set off by a spark from electrical wiring.

A handout photo from Iranian State TV on October 10 shows the Iranian crude oil tanker Sabiti sailing in the Red Sea. It was initially believed that missiles struck the vessel, but it could have been damaged by fire or limpet mines. Photo: IRIB TV / AFP

Limpet mines

The second possibility in regard to the Sabiti is some form of armed aggression, but not a missile. There is already a lot of precedents for the use of limpet mines by the Iranians.  Limpet mines are small mines that magnetically attach to the hull of a ship, or other steel or iron containers.

On June 13 this year, three explosions were reported on board the Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair oil tanker, which is owned by the Bermuda-based Norwegian firm Frontline. The company said that a fire broke out after an explosion. A second vessel, the Japanese-owned chemical tanker, Kokura Courageous was “attacked” twice, according to the owner.

The US had video surveillance footage, probably from an overhead spy aircraft or a drone that recorded Iranian IRGC Navy personnel removing an unexploded mine from one of the vessels so there would be no evidence of Iranian involvement.  The Iranians had placed multiple limpet mines along the hull of the Front Altair and maybe the Kokura Courageous.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was no doubt the Iranians were responsible for these and other attacks on oil tankers and bulk carriers.

But there are others who are capable of attacks against Iranian oil tankers.  The Sabiti had allegedly delivered oil to Syria and was heading home, traveling through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea on its way back to the Persian Gulf.  Any number of actors – the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia – could have wanted to “pay back” the Iranians, and this is one way it could have been done.

Israel operates sophisticated submarines that can carry commando teams.  But it is unlikely Israel would select such an unimportant target. Similarly, the Saudis are not in any mood to pick a fight with Iran.  And with the US determined to extract itself from “local” conflicts, it is hard to believe it would launch such an attack, since it would only make the Gulf situation much more precarious.

Thus, the question of an outside party attacking an Iranian oil tanker off the Saudi coast seems unlikely.

IRGC provocation?

The third possibility is a provocation, perhaps carried out by the IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, even without the knowledge of Tehran. If this is what happened, it did not work because Iran’s rulers were not aware of the IRGC operation.

That is why the Iranian government behaved cautiously. They did not assign any direct blame on Saudi Arabia for the attack, as one would have supposed if they were really in on the game. And, as the day wore on, the Iranian government even backed off the missile claim, first changing the story to just one missile, and then dropping it altogether.

Had Tehran figured out they were being conned? The fact that the ship’s captain allegedly reported two missiles lends credence to this possibility.

Why would the Revolutionary Guards want to provoke a conflict with Saudi Arabia?

The answer could be that the IRGC leaders think the Iranian leadership is soft and don’t want a fight with the Saudis or the United States, and the Tehran government may even fear that Israel might take advantage of a general conflict and act to destroy Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

The IRGC, on the other hand, is known to be highly aggressive and could have been trying to provoke an incident to push Tehran into a war that the Guards’ leadership may think it can win.

If this supposition is correct, this possible provocation might also be directly linked to the earlier drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which also failed to trigger a bigger conflict.

It suggests that there could be a serious difference of opinion inside Iran on strategy, and that the IRGC is the tail wagging the dog.

If true, this demonstrates a volatile and dangerous state of affairs inside Iran exacerbated by the country’s growing arsenal and its nuclear weapons program, much of it controlled by the IRGC.