Oil Spilled in Red Sea After Attack on Iranian Tanker

Image courtesy NIOC

Published Oct 11, 2019 1:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

Contradictory reports emerged Friday of an attack on an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea, identified as either the Sabiti or the Sinopa. NASA satellite imagery of the incident site reveals a linear discoloration consistent with oil emanating from a moving vessel, and AIS tracking indicates that Sabiti navigated a parallel route.

Early on Friday morning, National Iranian Oil Company director Nasrallah Sardashti reported that the tanker Sabiti suffered damage to two oil tanks on the starboard side while transiting off the Saudi port of Jeddah. The attack involved two explosions on the tanker's starboard side at 0500 and 0520 hours, according to the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). 

Sardashti told Iranian media that the situation aboard the vessel is stable and that the crew are unharmed. An unknown quantity of oil was released into the water, according to NITC. 

NASA Aqua MODIS satellite imagery from Friday afternoon showed what appeared to be a large, line-shaped alteration in water surface reflectance off Jeddah, appearing larger to the north and shrinking in width towards the south before ending abruptly. The linear portion measures approximately 65 nm in length, the equivalent of six hours of steaming. The Sabiti passed within several miles of the line at about 1100 hours local time, making a parallel course.

The previous passes by Aqua, Terra and Suomi recorded no comparable discoloration.

Suomi imaging early Friday (left), Aqua MODIS imaging late Friday (right), discoloration at center

NASA Aqua Modis (left), received portions of Sabiti's AIS past track (via MarineTraffic, right)

The Sabiti was northbound and headed for Port Said at the time of the attack, putting her starboard side towards the Saudi shoreline 60 miles to the east. Saudi Arabia is Iran's primary regional competitor, and Iran has been widely blamed for the recent attack on Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq oil processing complex, which briefly shut down about five percent of the world's oil supply. 

Iran's Foreign Ministry has denied early reports that the tanker was targeted with missiles fired from Saudi territory. 

As is standard for Iranian tanker operations under the current U.S. sanctions regime, the Sabiti's AIS transponder appeared to be turned off at the time of the incident. As of Friday afternoon, she was southbound, broadcasting an AIS destination in the Persian Gulf. 

Conflicting reports

Independent analysts, including Dryad Maritime and TankerTrackers, initially focused not on the Sabiti but on the tanker Sinopa. The Sinopa was nearby, in laden condition and headed for Syria on her routine operating route, according to TankerTrackers.

Iranian media issued contradictory initial reports. The Iranian oil and gas outlet Shana reported a series of explosions aboard the Sabiti, then denied that any damage had occurred and released images purportedly showing Sabiti intact and unharmed. Shana then reversed itself again, reporting that Sabiti had been damaged.