The Norwegian-controlled oil tanker that was attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday could have been singled out as a target, according to a Norwegian foreign policy expert who concentrates on the Middle East. That’s because its operations are linked to several small nations including Norway that don’t pose military threats of their own.
“There’s a possibility it (the 111,000-dwt Front Altair) was a conscious target,” Kjetil Selvik, senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI), told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. Selvik specializes in conflicts in the Middle East.
Norway poses little threat of retaliation
The large tanker, known in the shipping business as an Aframax, is in the fleet of Oslo-based Frontline, owned by wealthy Norwegian shipowner John Fredriksen. Frontline is registered, however, in Bermuda, its Front Altair sailed under a so-called “flag of convenience” from the Marshall Islands, and Fredriksen himself is a citizen of Cyprus, even though he mostly lives in London. Frontline bills itself as having one of the world’s largest fleets of large tankers including VLCCs and those categorized as Suezmax.
Norway is a member of NATO, but Selvik believes it’s relatively easier to attack a Norwegian- or Norwegian-owned vessel than one belonging to a nation that could fire back in military retaliation. He noted that it’s too early to conclude who was behind the attacks on Thursday, but he has no doubts regarding the reason for the attacks and sabotage directed at ships in the Middle East’s gulf area lately, including another Norwegian tanker four weeks ago:
“What lies behind all this is the sharp conflict between Iran and the US during the past year, after the US (at the initiative of US President Donald Trump) pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement,” Selvik told DN. The agreement was aimed at curbing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Norway was heavily involved in its negotiation and supported the agreement, as did Russia, Germany and several other nations.
The US also backed the Iran agreement under its former US President Barack Obama, and thanked Norway for its participation in developing what was widely viewed as a means of promoting peace in the region. Norway has continued to support the nuclear agreement, in opposition to its otherwise biggest ally, the US.
Trump controversially pulled the US out of the pact that had taken years to negotiate, claiming Iran wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain. Trump also imposed punitive economic sanctions against Iran, recently ended temporary allowance to import oil from Iran and threatened that any country doing so would be punished as well.
Iran and Saudi Arabia viewed as suspects
Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly pointed to Iran as being behind Thursday’s attack on the Norwegian tanker and another, the Japanese vessel Kokua Courageous. Japan is another state unlikely to mount a military response of its own, and the twin attacks occurred even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Teheran on Thursday to try to cool tensions between the US and Iran.
Selvik also notes that Iran could have been responding to the increased pressure on it from the US. Oil prices immediately jumped on news of the attack, as shipments of oil from the gulf became more dangerous.
Selvik also points, however, to Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, which is closedly allied with Trump. The attack on Frontline’s Front Altair could have been a provocation, he said, to boost the conflict and the possibility of war between the US and Iran.
“The Iranian regime is under huge pressure, and can’t sit still while its economy completely collapses (because of the sanctions against its economically important oil exports),” Selvik told DN.
Insurance groups suspected Iran of sabotage
DN reported that Oslo-based oil analyst Trond Omdal also pointed to Iran “or one of its cooperative partners” as being behind the attack. Shipping insurance experts have earlier concluded that the Iranian revolutionary guard was behind the sabotage of four ships a month ago. It’s considered to have been carried out in such a professional manner that it’s highly likely a national state was been behind it.
The Iranian Embassy in Norway wasn’t immediately responding to Norwegian media’s requests for comment on the attack on a Norwegian-controlled vessel.
The vessel’s crew, meanwhile, included no Norwegians but rather 11 Filipino seafarers, one crew member from Georgia and 11 Russians. They were all rescued and taken to the nearest port which was in Iran, Bandar Abbas.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Frontline was working with the various countries’ authorities to ensure that the crew members could travel home as quickly as possible. Russia, meanwhile, supported the Iran nuclear agreement, while being in conflict with the US’ Trump Administration itself.