U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks and the FSO Safer Oil Tanker
By David Jia-Lung Tsai
To avoid an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in the Red Sea, the United States and Iran should engage regional actors to safely unload the FSO Safer’s 1.14 million barrels of oil.
Nuclear talks between the United States and Iran resumed in Vienna on 10 February 2022. A Senior U.S. State Department official warned that if a deal is not struck within the next few weeks it will be “no longer possible to return to the JCPOA,” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. To salvage the JCPOA’s nonproliferation requirements, Washington needs to find common ground with Tehran. Preventing a potential oil spill off the coast of war-torn Yemen, where both sides have vested interests in, can be a cooperation point as negotiations move forward.
The FSO Safer, a deteriorating oil tanker storing 1.14 million barrels (47.9 million gallons) of Marib light crude oil, is at serious risk of leaking or exploding. A floating storage and offloading unit, the vessel has been moored six kilometers off Ras Isa, Yemen for more than thirty years. Seven years ago, Yemen’s civil war halted inspections and maintenance on the FSO Safer. Eight months ago, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Inger Andersen briefed the UN Security Council that “the risk of a massive oil leakage from the FSO Safer is growing as days pass.” Last month, Greenpeace International published a briefing exposing the decaying integrity of the vessel: “Consensus among marine shipping experts is that the FSO Safer is beyond repair.” The consequences are stark. A FSO Safer oil spill would suspend the supply of food aid to 8.4 million people, contaminate the Red Sea region’s entire drinking water supply, decimate marine ecosystems and Yemeni fisheries which support 1.7 million people, and disrupt global shipping trade through the Suez Canal. Resources crucial to Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia would be polluted and scarce, further deteriorating security in the region. Yemen is not financially capable of managing the fallout of a potential spill. Predictions from Riskaware, Satellite Applications Catapult, and ACAPS estimate that cleanup efforts will cost $20.0 billion. For perspective, Yemen’s latest annual GDP was $21.6 billion. When the FSO Safer leaks or explodes is unknown, but the international community’s actions lack the urgency this moment demands.
Despite asserting that “the UN possesses the capacity to intervene and resolve the problem” in 2020, Andersen and her counterparts have been unable to broker an agreement between the Houthi rebels, the de facto leadership in Sana’a, and the Yemeni government. “Political and logistical gridlock” prevent technical missions from assessing the FSO Safer. Attempts to offload the oil have stalled, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) appears ready to abandon mitigation strategies and accept the catastrophe as certain, as outlined in Andersen’s briefing to the Security Council. The prospect of the Houthis -- whose slogan is “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam” -- collaborating with Washington in a traditional agreement are slim. But creative alternative approaches with the Houthi movement, officially known as Ansar Allah, must be pursued if an environmental disaster is to be avoided. To understand why the oil hasn’t been offloaded, the FSO Safer must be situated within Yemen’s complex and violent state of affairs.
From 1990 to 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh served as the President of Yemen. The Arab Spring in 2011 unseated Saleh, along with the leaders of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Protracted insurgencies -- Houthi militias in Northern Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- presented additional challenges for the country’s new leader, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. In 2014, factions of Houthi rebels took the capital, Sana’a, dissolved the parliamentary system, and assumed control of the government. At the request of the ousted President Hadi, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine countries in ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ on 25 March 2015 against the Houthi rebels. Since 2015, the U.S. has supported Saudi efforts in Yemen with aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and aerial refueling. U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen is countered by Tehran. In Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, Abu Amin argues that “it is widely believed that Iran supports Houthis in Yemen as a continuum of its regional hegemony.” Last April, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking asserted that “Iran’s support of the Houthis is quite significant, and it’s lethal.” Seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the conflict in Yemen has directly led to 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from malnutrition and lack of health services or infrastructure. While the Yemeni government claims sovereignty of the vessel, the FSO Safer floats in territory occupied by the Houthi rebels. Holding the marine environment hostage, Houthi authorities have repeatedly reneged on appeals made by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to offload the oil. The value of the FSO Safer’s cargo is estimated at $60.0 million. According to Ebrahim Alseraji, who led the Houthis’ technical negotiations with the United Nations, the armed group won’t allow inspectors on board unless granted access to another terminal to store the oil. They wish to “maintain the economic value” of the FSO Safer -- which has served as a bargaining chip up to this point. Given the Houthis’ reluctance to negotiate, experts have considered military intervention as an alternative to diplomacy. However, coastal regions previously under Houthi control were booby-trapped with sea mines. The FSO Safer could be surrounded by explosives, and the authorization of military action could exacerbate an already fragile situation.
Negotiation remains the best option. The U.S. should invite Saudi Arabia, a regional ally and home to American troops abroad, to join these efforts. Further, the U.S. should extend an invitation to the United Arab Emirates -- whose control over non-state armed groups continues to influence the situation in Yemen -- on how to safely unload the tanker. The Ras Isa Marine Terminal, a port located on the Western coast of Yemen, has been the target of attacks in recent years. In 2016, nine workers were killed by the Saudi-UAE Coalition when attempting to unload the oil from the tanker. In November of 2019, the Houthi movement seized two South Korean vessels and a ship flying Saudi Arabia’s flag. More than two years later, the FSO Safer continues to deteriorate in the Red Sea. Pressure from Washington and other members of the UN Security Council is needed to mobilize immediate action. The environmental, economic, and humanitarian fallout of the FSO Safer leaking oil or exploding would be unfathomable; this spill would be four-times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The World Food Programme regards Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that 16.2 million people face acute hunger, 4.0 million are internally displaced, and conflict has intensified in governorates throughout the country. In the event of an oil spill, what’s at stake? The Red Sea’s coral reefs, coastal wetlands, fish, invertebrates, and mammals would be at high-risk of disease, slowed growth, and death. Models suggest that desalination plants in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen would be contaminated by week three of the spill. The anticipated spill could disrupt all of Yemen’s imported fuel via the Red Sea and pause humanitarian aid through the Port of Hodeidah and Saleef.
But hope remains. Negotiators in Vienna could raise these points to generate cooperation between the local actors and the international community. The FSO Safer presents the Biden Administration and Secretary of State Antony Blinken with an opportunity to collaborate with Tehran, which recognizes the Houthi rebels as the legitimate government in Yemen, and repair America’s credibility in the world. The Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea & Gulf of Aden (PERSGA), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the UNEP are among those available to act on the ground. The United States can act as an arbiter by establishing track one (official) and track two (non-state) diplomatic channels with the Houthi rebels and Yemeni government. With the appropriate safeguards in place, preventing one of the worst environmental disasters of the twenty-first century can be accomplished without long-term foreign intervention.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the view of the Environmental Law Institute.