Last Tuesday, Nov. 8, Iran announced that its warships in the Red Sea had foiled a pirates' attempt to hijack an Iranian oil tanker. The Iran Navy's deputy commander, Rear Adm. Seyed Mahmoud Moussavi, explained that 15 Somali pirate speedboats had tried to box the tanker in off the eastern coast of the Yemeni Red Sea island of Hanish al-Kubra – only to be thwarted by the timely action of the Iranian destroyer Jamaran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that on Oct. 9, Iran posted two vessels on the Red Sea, the home-made Jamaran and the IRI Bandar Abbas warship, referring to them as its Sixteenth War Fleet.
They replaced the Fifteenth War Fleet, which also comprised submarines, stationed there in early July.
US Fifth Fleet and Saudi Navy sources are most skeptical about the Iranian admiral's account of the scale of the clash, especially in the absence of information about the number of pirate vessels sunk and numbers taken prisoner. Never before has a large pirate fleet of 15 speedboats ever attacked an oil tanker. They therefore suspect the tale has an ulterior motive, such as a reminder from Tehran to Washington that sanctions on the Islamic Republic's oil imports, exports and by-products could be easily trumped by the secret hoard of crude Iran has salted away in supertankers on the Red Sea.
It is large enough to spark a massive hike of oil prices on the world markets, thereby bringing many European economies to sudden collapse and piling extra economic hardship on America.
Iran squirrels away 50 million barrels of crude
The size of this trump card is indeed formidable, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose: It consists of Iran's entire reserve of 38 million barrels of crude oil stored in 19 Very Large Crude Carriers – VLCC, which can each carry 2 million barrels of oil.
This is arguably the largest oil reserve any oil-producing country maintains offshore and outside its borders – although some international oil market sources doubt this quantity, claiming they only know of the existence of 16 VLCCs. It amounts to approximately six percent of US Strategic Petroleum Reserve-SPR, which is estimated at around 727 million barrels.
The tankers are kept floating on the Red Sea not far from the Egyptian oil terminal of Ain Sukhna, from which the 360-kilometer/220-mile SuMed pipeline carries crude from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
Ain Sukhna is situated at the confluence of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.
In addition to the giant tankers, Iran maintains another 12 million barrels of crude oil in short-term storage at the land terminal.
Iran has therefore squirreled away 50 million barrels of black gold, most of it atop the waves of the Red Sea. The Iranian warships and submarines clustered there serve as close escort for its precious oil reserves rather than as Tehran pretends, a contribution to the international fleet combating piracy.
A tool for bypassing sanctions, manipulating prices
Our Iranian sources report five pressing motives caused Tehran to banish this vital asset far from its shores:
1. It takes up excess production which Iran cannot sell and for which it lacks adequate tank and underground storage space.
2. It puts the crude on a cheap transporting route by pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea and European customers.
3. Iran can use its Red Sea emergency reserve to bypass any sanctions imposed on its oil industry.
4. In a war blockade on the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz gateway and/or the Bab al-Mandab Straits to the Red Sea, Iran can continue to sell oil from its floating reserve and still earn revenue to cover its war costs.
5. Tehran can manipulate world oil prices – either by a waiting game until prices lift or by opening and closing the tap to push market prices up and rake in huge profits.
No barrel of laughs between the US and Israel
Iran's floating oil reserve has become a bone of contention between the US and Israel, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report. In some ways, it encapsulates the dispute between Washington and Jerusalem over how to tackle Iran's burgeoning nuclear program.
In the past, US administrations were concerned to hold Israel back from military activism, especially on Iran. Today, in the case of Iran's Red Sea oil reserve, the positions are reversed.
On Oct. 3, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was en route to Israel, he told U.S. journalists traveling with him: "Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort, as well as a strong effort to project your military strength."
The journalists presumed Panetta was talking about the military passivity of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak in general terms. Our Washington sources disclose that Panetta meant the specific case of Iran's Red Sea oil fleet.
Since September, the Obama administration has been pushing hard for Israeli action to chase Iran's Very Large Crude Carriers and their naval escorts away from its southern back door. The Netanyahu government should not need reminding that its southern lifeline to Africa and the Far East through the Gulf of Aqaba was blockaded twice by its enemies. Iranian warships are parked less than 200 kilometers from Israel's southern port of Eilat in the perfect position to seal Israel off once again.
You go first. No you.
Instead of badgering world governments to enact harsher sanctions to stifle Iran's oil exports, US officials have urged Israeli leaders to strike out on its own while the iron is hot – or rather the oil is afloat and within reach.
It is obviously unacceptable to blow up supertankers carrying millions of barrels of oil because of the catastrophic ecological damage to the Red Sea and its riparian nations. But, say the US officials, the Israeli navy and air force can pursue tactical steps to harass the tanker-warship fleet and keep it on the run. Some would give up and go and so reduce the maneuverability Tehran has gained by its strategic Red Sea presence.
To push Israeli leaders into consenting, Panetta informed them in October that the Supreme Military Council ruling Egypt had promised not to interfere with an Israeli operation against the Iranian oil fleet and would allow its warships and submarines a free run into the Red Sea.
Netanyahu and Barak were noncommittal: The US deploys a sizable fleet in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, they pointed out. So why shouldn't an operation against the Iranian oil tankers be an American or a joint American-Israeli one – an idea Washington immediately shot down.
For lack of an agreed plan between Washington and Jerusalem, Iran's oil reserves continue to navigate the Red Sea undisturbed, providing the Islamic Republic with a powerful strategic and economic presence on one of the Middle East's most sensitive seas.