Attack on oil tankers in Gulf of Oman: Trump pins tanker attacks on Iran, dismisses shipping lane threat
- The vessels involved have been identified as the MT Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous
- MT Front Altair is a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker owned by Norway-based Frontline while Kokuka Courageous is managed by a Singapore company
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday doubled down in accusing Iran of executing explosions on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, saying the incident had Iran "written all over it."
However, as US-Iranian tensions soared, Trump dismissed previous threats by Tehran that in case of conflict it could block the Hormuz Strait - a narrow seaway vital to the world's oil supplies.
"They're not going to be closing it," he said in an interview on Fox News television.
Speaking hours after the US military released grainy footage it said showed an Iranian patrol boat removing an "unexploded limpet mine" from one of the tankers, Trump said "Iran did do it."
"You know they did it because you saw the boat," Trump told the "Fox and Friends" show.
"I guess one of the mines didn't explode and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it."
"You saw the boat at night, successfully trying to take the mine off - and that was exposed," he added.
Iran has repeatedly warned in the past that it could block the Hormuz Strait in a relatively low-tech, high-impact countermeasure to any attack by the far more powerful United States.
Doing so, would disrupt traffic of oil tankers between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Indian Ocean and global export routes.
"If the hostility of enemies increase, we will be able to do so," Iran's armed forces chief of staff, Mohammad Bagheri, told semi-official ISNA in April.
Trump plays down the threat
"It's not going to be closed, it's not going to be closed for long and they know it. They've been told in very strong terms," Trump told Fox News.
US says video shows Iran was involved
American officials released images they said show that Iran was involved in an attack on an oil tanker near the entrance to the Arabian Gulf on Thursday, one of a pair of incidents that have raised tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic over the past day.
"At 4:10 p.m. local time an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous (video attached)," Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military's Central Command, said in a statement.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had reviewed the video personally and said it clearly showed Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) approaching the vessel and removing the mine.
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.
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.
China calls for 'dialogue'
China on Friday called for "dialogue" after the United States accused Iran of being behind attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
"We hope that all the relevant sides can properly resolve their differences and resolve the conflict through dialogue and consultations," said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a regular press briefing.
"This conforms with the interests of regional countries, and also conforms with the interests of the international community," he added.
Iran rejects US accusation
Iran "categorically rejects the U.S. unfounded claim with regard to 13 June oil tanker incidents and condemns it in the strongest possible terms," the Iranian mission to the United Nations said in a statement on Thursday evening.
UK warns Iran over 'deeply unwise' attacks
Britain is working on the basis that Iran is responsible for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, and warned Iran that these actions were "deeply unwise", Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
"This is deeply worrying and comes at a time of already huge tension. I have been in contact with (U.S. Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and, while we will be making our own assessment soberly and carefully, our starting point is obviously to believe our U.S. allies," Hunt said in a statement.
US sends destroyer to scene of tanker attacks
The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East but will defend American interests including freedom of navigation, the US military said on Thursday as it directed a destroyer to the scene of an attack in the Gulf of Oman.
US Central Command said in a statement the destroyer USS Mason was en route to the scene of the attacks that damaged two tankers in the Gulf of Oman earlier in the day. The destroyer USS Bainbridge remains in close contact with the damaged tanker M/V Kokuka Courageous and will tolerate no interference, the statement said.
Iran responsible for attacks: Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States has assessed, based on intelligence, type of weapons used and sophistication of assaults, that Iran is responsible for the attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
He offered no concrete evidence to back up the assertion.
"It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today," Pompeo told reporters.
"This assessment 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," Pompeo said.
Iran is working to disrupt the flow of oil through Strait of Hormuz, Pompeo said.
Pompeo added he has instructed US ambassador to UN to raise Iran issue before Security Council.
Two oil tankers were attacked on Thursday and left adrift in the Gulf of Oman. The attack drove up oil prices and stoked fears of a new confrontation between Iran and the United States.
The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed.
Washington accused Tehran of being behind a similar attack on May 12 on four tankers in the same area, a vital shipping route through which much of the world's oil passes.
Trump says neither Iran nor US ready to make a deal
US President Donald Trump said that he appreciated the recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Iran to meet leaders, but that he believed it is "too soon to even think about" the United States making a deal with Tehran.
"They are not ready, and neither are we!" Trump said in a tweet.
Ships in Gulf region urged to take extreme caution
Berlin: Governments and maritime agencies urged an abundance of caution Thursday for ships operating in the Arabian Gulf region after two oil tankers were damaged in suspected attacks near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
A US defence official told CBS News that it was “highly likely Iran caused these attacks”. He dismissed an Iranian claim to have rescued the crews of both vessels in the Gulf of Oman as “patently false”. He said the USS Bainbridge picked up 21 crew members.
Though details of the suspected attack on the ships in the Gulf of Oman of the coast of Iran were still vague, the incident comes amid growing friction between Washington and Tehran in an area already fraught with tension.
"The shipping industry views this as an escalation of the situation, and we are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high," said Jakob P. Larsen, the head of maritime security for the shipping association BIMCO, which represents some 60 percent of the world's merchant fleet, including owners of the two damaged tankers.
The vessels involved have been identified as the MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker owned by Norway-based Frontline, and Kokuka Courageous, managed by a Singapore company.
Norway's Foreign Ministry said it "is concerned about the situation in Oman Bay" and "this type of incident further increases tension in the region."
'Exercise high care and alertness'
In a statement, the ministry referred to advice from the Shipowners' Association and the Norwegian Maritime Authority about sailing in the area. The Norwegian Maritime Authority had earlier issued a warning to the country's merchant fleet, advising ships to "exercise high care and alertness in the region."
"Although there is no full clarity in the background for these attacks, the Norwegian Maritime Directorate's advice is to keep a good distance to Iranian waters based on today's event," the agency said in a statement.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy, put out an alert early Thursday urging "extreme caution" after the incident.
"We are deeply concerned by reports of explosions and fires on vessels in the Gulf of Oman," the agency said. "We are in contact with local authorities and partners in the region."
The Strait of Hormuz is the only sea passage from the Arabian Gulf to the ocean, making it one of the world's most important sea lanes.
Larsen said past experience is that even with increased danger, commercial shipping will continue to use the route.
"Shippers will be cautious with taking their ships into the region, but as we've seen many times before when the risks are high, so are the rewards, so I think shippers will continue their trade," he said in a telephone interview from London, where he was attending a meeting of the United Nations' International Maritime Organization's Maritime Safety Committee.
"You may some sort of naval cooperation and guidance to shipping being set up which will render protection to shipping through the area, but it will depend on what the investigation shows."