Why were oil vessels attacked in the Gulf?

This was the second time in two months oil tankers have come under attack in the region.

June 15, 2019 07:52 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

An oil tanker is seen on fire in the sea of Oman on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

An oil tanker is seen on fire in the sea of Oman on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

The attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman , which connects the Arabian Sea with the Strait of Hormuz, a critical choke-point in one the world’s busiest shipping routes, has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The crisis has also pushed up global oil prices as well as the cost of shipping insurance. Within hours of Thursday’s attack on the vessels, one is Japanese-owned and the other Norwegian, the U.S. has blamed Iran for the incident. The U.S. Central Command, which is based in the Gulf, has also released a video footage that the U.S. claimed showed men on an Iranian boat removing a mine from one of the tankers.

This was the second time in two months oil tankers have come under attack in the region. On May 12, four vessels, owned by Saudi Arabia and Norway, were targeted off the UAE coast, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. had blamed Iran for that attack as well. Tehran has denied any role in the incidents. Whoever is responsible for these attacks, they are actually weaponising the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, both vital spots on the Gulf-Arabian Sea trade route.


Why Strait of Hormuz is important?

The Gulf (also known as the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf) lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Besides Iran and Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq also share the Gulf coastline. As all these countries are energy-rich, the Gulf naturally emerged as a major trade route through which most of the oil exported from these countries flow out. Strait of Hormuz is a choke-point between the Gulf and the open ocean. With Iran on its northern coast and the UAE and an Omanian enclave on the south, the Strait, at its narrowest point, has a width of 34 km. The Strait opens to the Gulf of Oman which is connected to the Arabian Sea. A third of crude oil exports transported via ships pass through the Strait, which makes it the world’s most important oil artery.


According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a record 18.5 million barrels a day of oil passed through the Strait in 2016, a 9% jump on flows in the previous year. Besides oil, nearly all the exported liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, the world’s second largest LNG exporter, pass through the Strait of Hormuz. If the Strait is closed or if the flow of oil and gas is disrupted, it would have serious impact on global energy stability and thereby on world economy. Last time when there was a tanker war in the Gulf, it lasted for years and caused a major rise in prices and drop in commercial shipping.

The last Tanker War

In the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were locked in a protracted conflict, both sides targeted each other’s energy vessels in the Gulf and on the Strait of Hormuz. Iraq started the Tanker War by targeting ships carrying Iranian fuel in 1981. Three years later, Iran started attacking vessels carrying Iraqi fuel turning the Gulf waters into a war zone. While Iraq largely attacked ships using missile-armed jet aircraft, the Iranians developed multiple ways to target tankers. They used speedboats, sea mines; anti-ship cruise missiles and traditional naval gunfire, among others. According to a report by the U.S. Naval Institute, in total, 340 ships were attacked and more than 30 million tonnes of shipping damaged in the Gulf between 1981 and 1987. It also caused over 400 seaman deaths. The conflict gradually subsided after the U.S. naval intervention in 1987, but only after Iran developed and demonstrated capability to attack any vessel that passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Among the ships severely damaged was the USS Samuel B. Roberts of the U.S. Navy, which was hit by an Iranian mine in 1988.

What’s next?

With ships again coming under attack in the Gulf region, memories of the Tanker War are being revived. If Iran is actually behind the recent attacks, it may be playing a risky game, demonstrating what it can do in the Gulf in the event of a war. If Iran is not behind the attacks, some other powers are using the Gulf trade lanes to stoke further tensions. Either way, the weaponisation of the Strait of Hormuz is a dangerous game. In the 1980s, the tanker war was largely a war of economic attrition. Also, the conflict was between Iran and Iraq, two relatively similar powers. This time, there are other risks. Given the existing tensions, more attacks on shipping vessels could trigger an all-out war, besides the economic costs of such attacks. Second, this time, conflict is between the U.S. and Iran. The scope of a direct war will be much bigger than what it was in the 1980s.

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