Something odd took place in the Persian Gulf today: early on Sunday, Lebanon's pro-Iran satellite channel Al-Mayadeen, quoting Gulf sources, reported that a series of powerful explosions had struck the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, reportedly targeting seven tankers. State and semi-official media in Iran picked up the report from Al-Mayadeen, which later published the names of vessels it claimed were involved in the incident.
According to Al Mayadeen, the blasts took place early on Sunday morning, adding that the seven oil tankers were completely burnt and that firefighters were still trying to extinguish the blaze. As Iran's PressTV adds, some social media activists said that American and French aircraft of unspecified type were flying over the port. Al Mayadeen did not say what had caused the explosions or the fire.
Subsequent attempts to validate the report, however, proved futile and as the AP reports, after speaking to Emirati officials and local witnesses, "the report about explosions at the port was unsubstantiated."
Despite the UAE government’s denial, witnesses emphasized that the blasts took place and some media sources even went further, identifying a number of oil tankers hit by the explosions by their hull numbers as follows:
- AMJAD tanker: No.: 9779800
- Marzouqah tanker: No.: 9165762
- Miraj oil tanker: No.: 9394741
- A.MICHEL oil tanker: No.: 9177674
- FNSA10 oil tanker: No.: 9432074
Yet, while this could have been quickly dismissed as just another case of fake news, later on Sunday the plot thickened because after initially denying anything had happened, the foreign ministry of the United Arab Emirates said that four commercial ships off its eastern coast "were subjected to sabotage operations" without causing casualties, however without giving details of the nature of the sabotage.
Providing further validation to the previously debunked report, the ministry said that the incident occurred near the UAE emirate of Fujairah, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs which lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, even though trading and industry sources quoted by Reuters said operations at Fujairah port ran smoothly on Sunday.
“Subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development,” according to the statement that was carried by state news agency WAM.
The statement, which did not identify the vessels beyond saying they were of various nationalities, said the incident did not result in spills. The UAE did not blame any country or other party for the operation.
Emirati officials declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible; the statement also denied any incident had taken place inside the port, adding the government had taken all necessary measures and launched an investigation in coordination with international authorities.
“The international community should carry out its responsibilities to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime security and safety, which would be considered a threat to international safety and security,” it added.
However, what prompted many to speculate that the attack, or "sabotage" may have been a false flag provocation to escalate a regional conflict, the incident came as the U.S. has warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and as America deployed an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran, while Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat.
The reported sabotage incident also comes after the U.S. Maritime Administration warned Thursday that Iran could target commercial sea traffic.
"Since early May, there is 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," the warning read. "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."
So was Iran indeed "targeting commercial vessels", or was someone pretending to be Iran and targeting commercial vessels, and if so did the operation fail to achieve its goal, resulting in the prompt denial that anything happened, even though it was Iran who originally reported that seven tankers were involved in the explosions?
While there is no definitive answer, later on Sunday, a senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said that reports of “explosions” near Fujairah port showed the “the security of the south of the Persian Gulf is like glass.”
انفجارهای فجیره نشان داد،امنیت جنوب خلیج فارس شیشه ای است.— حشمت الله فلاحت پیشه (@drfalahatpishe) May 12, 2019
Fujairah's port is located about 140 kilometers (85 miles) from the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of all oil at sea is traded. The facility handles oil for bunkering and shipping, as well as general and bulk cargo. It is seen as strategically located, serving shipping routes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.
Washington tightened sanctions on Iran this month, eliminating waivers that had allowed some countries to buy its oil, saying it wanted to cut Tehran’s crude exports to zero. Iran has said it will not let its oil exports by halted.
Finally, in another odd development for the incident which on one hand never, yet apparently was a case of sabotage, the UAE’s Gulf Arab ally Bahrain described the Fujairah incident as "a dangerous criminal act."
Following these bizarre reports and subsequent official denials, it remains unclear if there were indeed any explosions, if oil tankers were targeted, who was behind said attacks, and just what was the purpose of this "dangerous criminal" sabotage.
The confusion is similar to what happened earlier this week, when a number of powerful explosions rocked Saudi Arabia’s port city of Yanbu’, an important petroleum shipping terminal for the kingdom, and is home to three oil refineries, a plastics facility and several other petrochemical plants. Like on Sunday, however, reports fell short of giving any reason for the blasts or possible casualties.
No further details have been made available up to this moment and no group or individual has assumed responsibility for the blasts.