WASHINGTON: American officials released images they said show that Iran was involved in an attack on an oil tanker near the entrance to the Persian Gulf on Thursday, one of a pair of incidents that have raised tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic over the past day.
An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat “was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous,” one of two tankers attacked on Thursday, according to Navy Captain Bill Urban of the US Central Command. That was after another mine had already detonated, damaging the ship, the US said.
The video and photographs showing a boat alongside the hull of a larger vessel with a hole in its side were released by Central Command along with a timeline of the episode.
It was the first evidence publicly put forward by the US to support its claim – announced earlier on Thursday by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo – that Iran was behind the attacks. Iranian officials have rejected the accusation.
“Both vessels were in international waters in the Gulf of Oman approximately 10 nautical miles apart at the time of the distress calls,” Urban said in a statement, adding that the crew of the Courageous was rescued by a Dutch tug and later taken aboard the USS Bainbridge. He said that the crew of the second tanker, the Front Altair, were put aboard a Revolutionary Guard Corp vessel.
Kokuka Sangyo, the Japanese operator of the Courageous, said it was attacked twice on Thursday, in incidents that were three hours apart, forcing the crew to evacuate. The tanker was carrying 25,000 tons of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Asia. Japanese public broadcaster NHK, citing Kokuka Sangyo’s chief executive officer, said the ship was hit by a shell.
The manager of the Norwegian-owned Front Altair said it was sailing in international waters when it was damaged by an explosion, and that the episode was being treated as a “hostile attack.” The ship had loaded a cargo of naphtha in Abu Dhabi and was bound for Taiwan, a company official said.
Hours before Central Command provided its evidence to bolster the US accusations, Pompeo pinned the blame at Iran but declined to take questions from reporters.
“The United States will defend its forces, interests and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability,” Pompeo said, noting that Iran had previously threatened to curtail oil transport in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian officials denied any involvement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggesting that Iran’s enemies may have been behind the attacks and reiterating calls for a regional dialogue.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired,” he wrote on Twitter earlier on Thursday.
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Global benchmark Brent crude was little changed at US$61.35 a barrel during early Friday trading in Asia, holding Thursday’s 2.2% gain. The tanker attacks have provided only a relatively small boost to prices that have been hammered by a deepening trade war and swelling US stockpiles.
Before the video’s release, Kuwait’s envoy to the United Nations, Mansour Al-Otaibi, said it was too soon to assign blame.
“We are not going to blame anyone yet, the investigation is still going on,” Al-Otaibi told reporters before a UN Security Council meeting Thursday on the attacks. Another diplomat at the UN briefing, who asked not to be identified discussing a closed-door conversation, said the US didn’t present hard evidence of Iran’s culpability.
US Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told reporters after the Security Council meeting that “the US will continue its diplomatic and economic efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table. And Iran should meet us with diplomacy, not with terror, attacks on ships, infrastructure and diplomatic facilities.’’
The tanker attacks occurred as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran meeting officials in what was seen as an effort to help ease tensions between the US and Iran.
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The episode came a day after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.
The missile crashed into the arrivals hall, damaging ceilings and windows and causing a fire, though the airport was able to keep functioning with only two flights cancelled. The Houthis last month hit oil infrastructure hundreds of kilometres inside Saudi Arabia, forcing it to temporarily close a pipeline.
Senior Trump administration officials said earlier Thursday that the US was considering a number of responses, including the possibility of providing naval escorts to commercial ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz. An American military response hasn’t been ruled out, they said, saying all options are on the table.
The prospects of conflict have heightened since the administration tightened its sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early May, following President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
“The attacks put upward pressure on the probability of a US-Iran conflict in the Gulf (currently 30%),” the Eurasia Group said in a note before Pompeo spoke. “The incidents appear aimed at demonstrating the vulnerability of Gulf shipping while damaging confidence in the US ability to protect freedom of navigation.”
Urban’s statement, as well as an earlier one from US Central Command, said that while the US would defend itself and its interests, it had no wish for a new war in the Middle East.