The United States accused Iran of carrying out attacks that left two tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, escalating tensions across the region and sending world oil prices soaring.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Washington will defend its forces and allies in the region, and the U.S. pressed its case as the United Nations Security Council met to address the incident – the second in a month in the strategic sea lane.
With tensions spiraling between Iran and the United States, the European Union called for “maximum restraint” as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf.
Iran labeled the apparent attacks as “suspicious,” as its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed overtures by visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to open talks with U.S. President Donald Trump.
It is the assessment of the U.S. government that Iran is responsible for today's attacks in the Gulf of Oman. These attacks are a threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable escalation of tension by Iran. pic.twitter.com/cbLrWNU5S0
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 13, 2019
But Pompeo said there was strong evidence of Iran’s culpability, after the U.S. Navy said it had spotted an unexploded magnetic limpet mine stuck to the hull of one of the vessels.
Pompeo claimed that in the region, only Iran has the ability to undertake such an operation.
“It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” Pompeo announced. He did not present any evidence.
“This is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” he said.
A U.K. Foreign Office source told BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale that the British government ‘strongly agrees’ with the U.S. assessment.
Alireza Miryousefi, a Minister and head of the media office for the Iranian mission to the U.N. tweeted a statement that said Iran “categorically rejects the U.S. unfounded claim … and condemns it in the strongest possible terms.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described the incident as “suspicious,” noting that Abe was in Tehran at the time the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was attacked.
Citing four U.S. officials, CNN reported that the U.S. has video and images that show an Iranian navy boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the stricken tankers.
U.S. Central Command on Thursday released footage of what it said was an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gashti Class patrol boat approaching the M/T Kokuka Courageous. The IRGC boat “was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous,” CENTCOM said.
It also released images showing what it said was a “likely mine” attached to the ship.
Explosions off Iran coast
The two vessels were struck by explosions in the early daylight hours on Thursday after leaving the Strait of Hormuz and traveling around 25 nautical miles off Iran’s southern coast headed toward Asia.
The Norwegian-owned Front Altair ethanol tanker was hit by three explosions, according to the Norwegian Maritime Authority, and continued to burn late on Thursday.
Explosions also struck the Kokuka Courageous, which was loaded down with methanol, but the fire on board was soon extinguished.
There was no claim of responsibility for the blasts, which struck both tankers at the waterline.
GULF OF OMAN , June 13, 2019 —
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) responded to a distress call from the M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman the morning of June 13. https://t.co/TVOdAgfDWK pic.twitter.com/qDIAZBRApa
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) June 14, 2019
Iran said its navy rescued several dozen crew members of the two vessels, while U.S. CENTCOM said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge had picked up 21 that had evacuated to the Dutch tug boat Coastal Ace from the Kokuka Courageous. One crewman had “suffered burns on his hands and was treated immediately by the Bainbridge medical team,” CENTCOM said.
Washington has dispatched the destroyer USS Mason to the scene “to provide assistance,” the command said.
‘Series of attacks’ by Iran or proxies
Pompeo called Thursday’s tanker explosions “the latest in a series of attacks” he alleged were undertaken by Iran or its “proxies,” including, he said, a missile attack against a southern Saudi Arabia airport by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis on Wednesday.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” he said.
The United States has previously accused Iran over May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, just at the entrance of the Hormuz Strait.
Pompeo said Iran was lashing out because of the impact of U.S. and international sanctions, but said it had no right “to attack innocent civilians and engage in nuclear blackmail.”
“The United States will defend its forces, interests and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability,” he warned.
The U.S. also called for the U.N. Security Council to confront the “threat” posed by Iran.
The council met behind closed doors to hear U.S. acting Ambassador Jonathan Cohen present a briefing on Washington’s assessment that Iran was responsible for the suspected attack on two tankers in the strategic sea lane.
The attacks, which came a month after a similar incident targeting four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, “demonstrate the clear threat that Iran poses to international peace and security,” Cohen said, echoing Pompeo’s earlier statement.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations responded in a statement that it was U.S. sanctions and its military buildup in the Gulf that was “the most significant threat to peace and security” in the region.
“The U.S. and its regional allies must stop warmongering,” the statement said.
Kuwait’s Ambassador Mansour al-Otaibi said many council members called for an investigation to determine the facts.
“We are in a dangerous moment in the region with this emerging pattern of attacks,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with International Crisis Group.
“Any miscalculation or misunderstanding risks a spiral toward more direct confrontation,” she told AFP.
Abe in Tehran
Oil prices jumped at the threat of open conflict at the Hormuz chokepoint, through which transit some 15 million barrels of crude oil every day, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of imports for the Gulf countries.
In London, the Brent benchmark jumped 2.2 percent to $61.31 a barrel, while in New York, the U.S. crude standard West Texas Intermediate, also rose 2.2 percent, to $52.28.
The latest incident came as Abe was on an unprecedented visit to Tehran, seeking to defuse tensions.
“It is essential that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East,” Abe told a joint news conference with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
“Today, tension is rising in the Middle East. Some experts point out that the conflict might be triggered accidentally,” he said.
Supreme Leader Khamenei rejected Abe’s overture, saying: “We have no doubt in your goodwill and seriousness, but regarding what you said the U.S. president told you, I don’t consider Trump as a person worthy of exchanging messages with.”
In Washington, Pompeo said the United States aimed to bring Iran back into negotiations – “at the right time” – over its nuclear program and regional activities.
But Trump dismissed the idea of early talks.
“I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!” he tweeted.
With reporting from AFP