CAIRO - Saudi Energy Minister Khaled Faleh says the state-owned Saudi oil giant Aramco was temporarily stopping oil shipments through the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, according to Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV. The action follows reports that two giant Saudi oil tankers had been targeted by Yemen's Houthi militia near the Red Sea port of Hodeida.
The TV channel reported that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates may suspend oil shipments through the Red Sea, as well. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali Jaafari, claimed Wednesday that Iran "is able to stop world oil shipments, at will," but it was not clear that the attacks were related to those remarks. Other Iranian leaders have threatened recently to "close the Strait of Hormuz," another strategic waterway leading out of the Persian Gulf.
Asharq al-awsat newspaper reported that one of the Saudi oil tankers said to have been attacked in the Red Sea Wednesday was lightly damaged, while the other was not hit. The United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted Thursday that the attacks "confirm the importance of removing (Yemen's Iranian-backed) Houthis from (the Red Sea port city) of Hodeida."
The newspaper quoted Saudi-led coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki as saying that the two attacks underscore "the dangerous threat to international shipping and commerce through the (strategic) Bab al-Mandab (strait)," as well as the "ecological threat," of oil spills. Both Saudi Arabia and its junior coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, have been trying to push the Houthis out of Hodeida militarily.
U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths has been trying to negotiate a political solution with the Houthis that would include the resumption of dialogue between Yemen's warring parties and the withdrawal of the Houthis from Hodeida. The Houthis have reportedly offered to hand the port area to the U.N., while Yemen's internationally-recognized president, Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, is demanding that they withdraw from the entire city. The BBC Arabic service reported that Griffiths was due to meet with the Houthis, Thursday.
The Pentagon on Thursday strongly condemned "any action that threatens freedom of navigation in international waters." The Pentagon also urged "all parties to work with U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths toward a comprehensive political agreement that brings peace, prosperity, and security to Yemen."
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that "video put out by the Houthis Wednesday appeared to show a (Saudi) frigate that was hit, and not an oil tanker." It was not clear, however, if the Houthi video was from Wednesday's attack or from archival footage.
Khashan points out that "U.S. rules of engagement in the Red Sea differ from those in the Persian Gulf." He believes that an Iranian attempt to "close the Strait of Hormuz would represent a red line for the U.S., whereas disrupting traffic in the Red Sea would not." Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthis have attacked a number of ships in the Red Sea since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the country in April 2015, and the U.S. did not react.
It was not immediately clear to what extent the alleged attacks on the two Saudi oil tankers were related to the ongoing war of words between the U.S. and Iran over repeated threats by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz. New U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran are due to go into effect on August 4, while sanctions on the oil sector are due to go into effect on November 4.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani told a gathering of Iranian diplomats over the weekend that "war with Iran would be the mother of all wars," to which U.S. President Donald Trump responded in a tweet that Iran should "never ever threaten the United States again or (it) will suffer the consequences, the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before."
Former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr told VOA several days ago that he did not think it was likely Iran would try to close the Strait of Hormuz, despite repeated threats by Iranian leaders to do so. But, he warned, "one never knows, because war has a dynamic of its own." Many experts question if Iran is physically able to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran's Revolutionary Guard frequently conduct war games in the southern region of the Gulf in which a large number of zodiac boats appear to stage mock attacks, harassing larger ships.