The first “Tanker War”

At the height of the Iran-Iraq war in 1984, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lead a coalition which included Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in a series of attacks against Iranian commercial vessels tied to its oil industry. These vessels were mainly tankers. Iran did not take long to reply in kind, starting a “war” which lasted until 1988, compromising the security of commercial traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf, and menacing global stability via increasing oil prices. 

Tanker War 2.0

Thirty-one years after the last event in the original “Tanker War”, on April 30,2019, Iranian tanker HAPPINESS reports engine problems and flooding in the engine compartment. While the event went almost unnoticed, it was actually the first in a chain of “tit for tat” attacks on commercial vessels that we are now calling “Tanker War 2.0”.

Attack on Iranian crude oil tanker HAPPINESS I signals the beginning of Tanker War 2.0
(source : marinetraffic.com)

 
The Background

On November 5, 2018, a little more than two years since most sanctions on Iran were dropped as consequence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; more commonly Iran Nuclear Deal), the U.S. reinstantiated all sanctions on Iran after the Trump Administration announced it would withdraw from the JCPOA. While the reintroduced sanctions were issued by only the U.S., as opposed to being UN mandated and supported, they had the effect of almost completely halting exports from Iran towards any country willing to do business with the U.S. The Iranian economy suddenly crippled. 

The regime took several responses, among which that of establishing something akin to a covert oil export network relying on shell companies and the disabling of naval transponders, to sell Iranian oil to the few countries willing to purchase it “secretly” (mostly through high sea ship-to-ship oil transfers). 

Sentinel-2 satellite image showing Iran linked tanker EMERALD transferring oil while at sea, west of Syrian coasts.

Among the few customers was the Syrian regime, which was and is under UN sanctions forbidding oil exports to the country. They remain in desperate need for crude oil to refine.

Israel in the meantime, while sort of “happy” for U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, was increasingly worried by possible nuclear proliferation in the Islamic country; more urgently, Iranian efforts to arm and train proxy forces operating in the proximity of Israel’s borders. Any relevant source of income for Iran was/is a problem for the Jewish country just as it was a problem for any military or economical support to the Syrian dictatorship. Given the covert and barely legitimate nature of Iran international oil exports, targeting its routes towards Syria is consistent with Israeli interests and their long history of covert actions against the Iranian regime. 

The Secrecy

As for many events in this (not so) covert “war”, what happened to HAPPINESS was reported originally as an ‘incident’. Not until many months later would Iran reveal that the damage to the vessel, together with other two in the following months, was the result of an intentional ‘attack’. The actual source of the attack and means employed where never disclosed, but given the statements, geopolitical situation at the time and location of those first attacks, it possible that, at least in the first months of the “war”, Iran suspected Saudi Arabia and the U.S. as culprits. 

As the “war” proceeded, informations about attacks on Iranian connected commercial vessels where scarce and rare, possibly also due to the unwillingness of the regime to show its weakness. As the events were unfolding, the general public was not aware of the actual magnitude of the situation. 

Two main journalistic pieces broke this secrecy (on the Iranian side at least) and allowed us to finally get a more complete picture of the actual events and forces involved. First a story based on leaks from U.S. and Israeli sources published on the Wall Street Journal in March 2021 revealed that Israel had been involved in covert attacks against Iranian commercial vessels involved in (illicit as per U.N.) oil trade with Syria, alleging that over a dozen of such actions took place since “late” 2019 (it is safe to assume that first of this attacks traces instead back to April 30, 2019 with HAPPINESS in the Red Sea). In early August 2021, Iran news agency Nour News published a brief article with a complete infographic revealing the dates and vessels names of the attacks that targeted Iranian vessels (huge thanks to @mhmiranusa on twitter who not only was the first to report the story for non Persian readers, but also helped us translating and mapping the attacks).

 

The Escalation

On May 12 2019, just 12 days after the HAPPINESS attack, and as tensions between U.S./Israel and Iran where soaring, four tankers of international origin where attacked by “unknown” forces just off Fujairah‘s coast. Limpet mines (explosive charges, often magnetic, that are placed directly on the hull of the vessel) were later discovered to be the method of attack. The mines were planted in such a way to result in minor damage to the vessels, specifically the oil cargo they carried. U.S. officials deemed IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps) responsible for the attack , while other countries in the region preferred not to officially identify the possible source of the attacks. For many, the event appeared to be an unwarranted (no informations about attacks on Iranian vessels where known yet) escalation by Iran, with Israel and U.S. officials suggesting that Iran was acting either in support / coordination with its Houthis proxy forces from Yemen or as retorsion for the return of sanctions.

In the following years multiple other attacks occurred, allegedly, from Iranian forces on civilian vessels, while little or no information about attacks on Iranian vessels reached the news. Among the few reported attacks on Iranian commercial vessels there was that attack on the tanker SABITI. Two explosions struck SABITI while navigating in the Red Sea. The extensive damage created a relevant oil spill, reaching Saudi Arabia’s Coasts and causing serious environmental harm. Interestingly Saudi Arabia did not seemed much interested in the attack or what / who caused it…

Limpet mine (Iranian)

While the environmental implications of military grade attacks on tankers carrying thousands of tons of crude oil are terrifying and obvious, it is also important to stress that attacks from both sides are completely illegal as per International Law and UN Laws of Seas and are setting dangerous precedents both for the rule of international law and free navigation in general, yet completely ignored by international authorities.

Satellite view of the oil spill caused by the attack on Iranian tanker SABITI

A lot of the information we have is incomplete and filtered through government and media bias, but what it is clear is that a (not so covert anymore) war of sorts is ongoing. While we mostly have to rely on official government statements or official sources leaking information (in a very controlled way), the data we have and OSINT techniques especially can help us reconstruct at least some of the major events in this confrontation. 

The Map

At the top of the page you will find an interactive map tracing the events of “Tanker War 2.0” in the hope to provide a clearer view and timeline for the public. By clicking on them you will access further informations and media about them. We will continue updating the map as we gather more informations on past events or new information becomes available.

(Especially for mobile users, here a direct link to the interactive map allowing for clearer full screen visualisation)

For corrections, questions, informations about the technology used for the top map etc reach us out at info@osinteditor.com or join our discord community !