(Adds White House, State Department comments)
By Phil Stewart and Jonathan Saul
WASHINGTON/LONDON May 14 Iranian naval vessels
fired shots at a Singapore-flagged tanker in the Gulf on
Thursday, in what appeared to be Iran's latest attempt to settle
a legal dispute by force with passing commercial vessels, U.S.
The incident unnerved the shipping industry just as
President Barack Obama met with Gulf allies to try to allay
their concerns that Iran would be empowered by a deal to curb
Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the West lifting
U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of
anonymity, said five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy
ships approached the Alpine Eternity oil products tanker at
about noon (0800 GMT), prompting the ship to flee to safety in
United Arab Emirates' waters.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said
Iran had attempted to intercept the vessel in international
waters because Tehran says the tanker is liable for damage to an
Iranian-owned oil platform it hit on March 22.
The White House, Pentagon and State Department declined to
confirm emerging details about the episode but acknowledged
concern about Iran's conduct.
"This is exactly the type of challenge that many of the
(Gulf) partners are focused on," said White House Deputy
National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
Two weeks ago, Iranian patrol ships diverted a Marshall
Islands-flagged container vessel from the Strait of Hormuz to
settle a years-old debt case.
Shipping industry officials said they were bracing for the
likelihood of even more tensions at sea, which could lead to a
spike in shipping costs.
"The pattern looks like the Revolutionary Guards are using a
commercial pretext to intervene in the incidents to date," said
one shipping underwriter. "This could start to impact upon
The Pentagon did not rule out again ordering U.S. warships
to accompany commercial vessels passing through the Strait of
Hormuz, as it did after the last incident.
The tanker's owner, South Maritime Pte Ltd, said in a
statement that the ships, which it believed to be Iranian, first
fired warning shots but then directly fired on the vessel after
it ignored an order to stop.
"No serious damage was sustained by the vessel and none of
the 23 crew members were injured," the statement said. The owner
said the vessel safely reached the port of Jebel Ali.
Millions of barrels of oil are transported daily through the
Bab el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz to Europe, the United States
and Asia, waterways which pass along the coasts of Yemen and
The episode in the Gulf coincided with mounting concern over
an Iranian cargo ship headed to Yemen. A Saudi Arabia-led
coalition has imposed an air and maritime blockade to stop
weapons supplies reaching the Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, Deputy Chief of Iran's
Armed Forces, warned of war if the ship, which Tehran says is
carrying humanitarian supplies, was attacked.
Still, the Pentagon on Thursday said Iran had so far at
least refrained from dispatching warships to accompany the cargo
vessel, despite announcing plans to do so.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Jonathan Saul in
London; Editing by Will Dunham, James Dalgleish, Grant McCool)