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U.S. sending 'support' to Saudis after Iranian state TV says missiles hit tanker in Red Sea

The United States will send fighter jets and additional air defences to Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom against Iran amid heightened tensions between the two Middle Eastern adversaries, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

Explosion caused oil leak in Red Sea that was later contained, Iran's IRNA reports

Iranian officials said two missiles struck a tanker travelling through the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia, and state media reported the stricken tanker as the Sabiti. (National Iranian Oil Tanker Company via Reuters)

The United States will send fighter jets and additional air defences to Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom against Iran amid heightened tensions between the two Middle Eastern adversaries, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

Esper announced the deployment of several dozen fighter jets along with other aircraft and additional air defences hours after Iran said two missiles struck one of its oil tankers travelling through the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

No one has claimed responsibility for that attack, but it came after months of increased tensions between the two Mideast countries. The deployment is also part of the response to the suspected Iranian missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14.

Esper said the decision followed discussions with the Saudi defence minister about the country's defensive capabilities.

"Saudi Arabia is a longstanding security partner in the Middle East and has asked for additional support to supplement their own defence and defend the international rules-based order," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

The U.S. will send two fighter jet squadrons, other planes, two Patriot missile batteries and one anti-missile defence system known as THAAD. U.S. officials said the effort will involve about 1,800 service members.

After the reported attack, benchmark Brent crude oil rose over two per cent in trading Friday to reach some $60.40 US a barrel.

The Sept. 14 attack on the Saudi oil facilities, as well as earlier ones on a pipeline in the kingdom and ships in the Gulf, stem from U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers and impose crushing sanctions targeting Iran's crude oil sales and shipments. Iranian officials warned for weeks that if they could not sell their oil, neither would anyone else in the region.

There was no word from Saudi Arabia on the reported attack, and Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

2 storerooms damaged, tanker leaked oil into Red Sea  

Iranian state television said the explosion damaged two storerooms aboard the unnamed tanker and caused an oil leak into the Red Sea near the Saudi port city of Jeddah. The leak was later stopped, IRNA reported.

The state-run news agency, quoting Iran's National Iranian Tanker Co., identified the stricken vessel as the Sabiti. It turned on its tracking devices late Friday morning in the Red Sea, putting its location some 130 kilometres southwest of Jeddah, according to data from MarineTraffic.com. The ship is carrying some one million barrels of crude oil, according to an analysis from data firm Refinitiv.

Images released by Iran's Petroleum Ministry appeared to show no visible damage to the Sabiti visible from its bridge, though they did not show the ship's sides. The ministry's SHANA news agency said no ship nor any authority in the area responded to its distress messages.

The Sabiti last turned on its tracking devices in August near the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, according to data from MarineTraffic.com. Iranian tankers routinely turn off their trackers as U.S. sanctions target the sale of Iran's crude oil.

"The oil tanker … sustained damages to the body when it was hit by missiles 96 kilometres from the Saudi port city of Jeddah," IRNA said.

The agency did not say whom Iranian officials suspect of launching the missiles.

Lt. Pete Pagano, a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet overseeing the Mideast, said authorities there were "aware of reports of this incident," but declined to comment further.

'Deteriorating relations'

The reported attack comes after the U.S. has alleged that in past months Iran attacked oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, something denied by Tehran.

Friday's incident could push tensions between Iran and the U.S. even higher, more than a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on Iran. 

"This latest incident, if confirmed to be an act of aggression is highly likely to be part of the wider narrative of deteriorating relations between Saudi and the U.S. and Iran," private maritime security firm Dryad Maritime warned.

"It is likely that the region, having been stable for the last month, will face another period of increasing maritime threats, as the Iranian and Saudi geopolitical standoff continues," it added.

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