Iran tanker breaks down off Saudi coast, raises specter of massive oil leak

An Iranian oil tanker carrying over one million barrels of fuel oil suffered a malfunction off the coast of Saudi Arabia on Thursday, raising concerns that the vessel could be leaking.

By Associated Press

An incident involving the Iranian oil tanker Happiness I arrived as exemptions from U.S. sanctions for Iranian crude oil purchases expired, part of President Donald Trump’s maximalist approach to clamping down on Tehran.

Saudi Arabia’s state-run television channels and news agency said authorities received a distress call from the Happiness I over an “engine failure and the loss of control.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are chief Mideast rivals. Iran now faces increased pressure from the U.S. over its oil sales after Trump pulled America out of its nuclear deal with world powers. Iran has warned it will respond aggressively to any attempt to cut its oil exports to zero, as the Trump administration has pledged to do.

This is the latest incident involving an Iranian tanker.

In January 2018, the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi struck the Chinese freighter CF Crystal 257 kilometers (160 miles) off the coast of Shanghai in the East China Sea. The Sanchi, carrying nearly 1 million barrels of a gassy, ultra-light oil bound for South Korea, burst into flames, killing 32 sailors on board.

The Happiness I had a crew of 26, including 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis, Saudi state media said. They described the ship’s position as some 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Jiddah in the Red Sea.

Saudi authorities said various government agencies were involved in the operation, including those who handle environmental protection. They did not elaborate on whether oil had spilled from the tanker, but the ship was known to be carrying over one million barrels of fuel oil, raising concerns that the vessel could be leaking.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted the state-run National Iranian Tanker Co. as saying the tanker would be transferred to Jiddah’s port. It said the vessel, on the way to the Suez Canal, broke down over water leaking into its engine room.

No one was injured in the incident and Iran denied any fuel had leaked out. The website MarineTraffic.com, which tracks vessels at sea, put the Happiness I about 40 kilometers (25 miles) off the coast of Jiddah late Thursday morning.

The website TankerTrackers.com, whose analysts monitor oil sales on the seas, estimated the Happiness I carried at least 1.1 million barrels of fuel oil. It said the ship sailed in tandem with another smaller sister ship named the Sabiti.

The Happiness I stopped its engines Tuesday, then was shadowed by the Sabiti close enough to have its crew escape, TankerTrackers said. Two tugboats from Saudi Arabia appeared to have reached the ships, TankerTrackers said.

TankerTrackers said it did not believe there was an oil leak, though information about the incident was still murky.