By Phil Stewart and Jonathan Saul
WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) - Iranian naval vessels fired shots at a Singapore-flagged tanker in the Gulf on Thursday in what appeared to be the country's latest attempt to settle a legal dispute by force with a passing commercial vessel, U.S. officials said.
Around noon (0800 GMT) in the Gulf, five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy ships approached the Alpine Eternity, prompting the oil products tanker to flee to safety in United Arab Emirates waters, the officials said.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran had attempted to intercept the vessel in international waters because Tehran says it is liable for damage to an Iranian-owned oil platform it hit on March 22.
The incident signaled further escalation in tensions two weeks after Iranian patrol ships diverted a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel from the Strait of Hormuz to settle a years-old debt case.
The Pentagon declined to say whether it would again order U.S. warships to accompany commercial vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz, as it did after the last incident.
Shipping industry officials said they were bracing for the likelihood of 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 a leading shipping underwriter. "This could start to impact upon (insurance) rates."
The news came as President Barack Obama opened a summit with Gulf allies on Thursday, seeking to convince them of Washington’s commitment to their security despite deep concern about U.S. efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Sunni Arab leaders are concerned that lifting Western sanctions as part of a nuclear deal with Shi’ite Iran would empower Tehran to act in further destabilizing the region, especially in volatile countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
The latest incidents at sea add weight to such concerns.
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 pass through the Bab el-Mandeb
and Strait of Hormuz every day to Europe, the United States and
Asia, waterways which pass along the coasts of Yemen and Iran
(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by Will Dunham and James Dalgleish)