What Caused the Explosion on the Iranian Tanker

An Iranian merchant ship was damaged last week while sailing off the shore of Saudi Arabia, and since then, an attempt has been made to understand who attacked the ship and how they did it. According to various reports, the ship was attacked by missiles, but photographs of the ship after the attack have suggested some other options. Commentary

What Caused the Explosion on the Iranian Tanker

Photo: AP

During the early morning hours of Friday, October 11, 2019, while making its way from Iran, the Iranian tanker Sabiti reported that it was hit by two missiles launched at it near the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Over the last few months, several other Iranian ships were hit. The first incident occurred early last May, also near the Saudi port, and involved an Iranian tanker probably damaged by a naval mine. A series of explosions on merchant ships sailing in the Gulf of Oman and near the Persian Gulf followed the first incident.

In the hours immediately following the initial reports, various contradicting and strange reports started to accumulate. According to some Iranian reports, there was a confusion and the ship had not been hit by missiles. Other reports alleged that a fire had broken out in the hull (in view of the images of black smoke billowing from the ship). Reports from other sources alleged that an Israeli submarine, operating in the area of the attack, was responsible for launching the two missiles at the Iranian tanker.

Another conspiracy theory alleged that the attack had been staged by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a self-initiated provocation that would justify an Iranian response for the alleged attack against an Iranian ship.

The pleasure of guessing the identity of the attackers notwithstanding, their actual identity will be difficult to determine without real intelligence. Over the last few days, photographic images have started to accumulate which indicate the damage, showing two gaping "openings" on the side of the ship, close to the waterline.

From Conspiracy Theories to Assessments

The photographs give the impression that the ship was not under full displacement, namely – it had not been loaded to full capacity. The findings raise a number of options.

The first option suggests that two missiles hit the ship. These two missiles could have been launched by a ship (a naval vessel or a vessel disguised as a civilian ship) operating in the area or by a shore-based launcher from the direction of the Saudi shore. However, considering the height of the hits relative to the waterline, it seems that the ship had not been hit by missiles. The shape of the holes is not consistent with missiles having penetrated the side of the ship from the outside. Anti-ship missiles are designed to penetrate the relatively thin sides of the target ship and detonate inside the hull. If a missile had hit the Iranian ship, the damage would have been much more substantial than that actually sustained by the ship.

Photo: AP

The second option suggests that the ship was hit by two floating naval mines which the ship triggered accidentally as it passed by them. Once again, the height of the impact relative to the waterline negates this option fairly quickly. The probability of being hit by two naval mines deployed close to one another on the high seas and close to the side of the ship is fairly low.

The third option suggests that the damage was inflicted by two limpet mines attached to the side of the ship. In this case, the limpet mines should have been attached to the side of the ship by a commando force, dispatched toward the Iranian ship from a nearby vessel or from the shore. The commando force should have travelled adjacent to the ship as it was moving, for a few minutes, and attach the mines to the side of the tanker. As long as the commando force remains undetected, this task is not overly complex for a skilled commando team.

The fourth option suggests the use of two Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) or two remotely-piloted explosive boats that collided with the Iranian ship. In the area where the incident occurred, the Houthis employ USVs and have even used them in the past against Saudi and US vessels. If that was the case, the question remains why the Houthi rebels, who operate under the auspices and through the support of Iran, should employ these vessels against an Iranian ship.

The fifth and final option suggests that the explosion had actually occurred inside the ship's hull, but the photographic images suggest that the explosion occurred from the outside in.

It would be reasonable to assume, therefore, that the damage inflicted on the Iranian ship was the result of the detonation of two limpet mines attached to the side of the ship as it was sailing by a commando force, which travelled adjacent to it without being detected. In all probability, the identity of the perpetrators will never be revealed.

At the same time, Israeli merchant ships sail these shipping routes regularly, and it is recommended that their crews remain very alert while sailing through those waters.

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