His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, received John Bolton, the United States National Security Adviser, in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Image Credit: Twitter

Abu Dhabi: US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Wednesday that naval mines “almost certainly from Iran” were used to attack oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates this month, and warned Tehran against conducting new operations.

Bolton said the “prudent and responsible” approach taken by the United States, which has beefed up its military presence in the region, had made it clear to Iran and its proxies that such actions risked a “very strong” US response.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind who is responsible for this and it’s important that the leadership in Iran knows that we know.

- John Bolton | United States National Security Adviser

He was speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi ahead of emergency summits of Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia on Thursday called to discuss the implications of the tanker attacks, and drone strikes two days later, on oil pumping stations in the kingdom.

Tehran has denied involvement in either attack and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed Bolton’s latest remarks as a “ludicrous claim”, Fars news agency said.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton

The UAE has not yet blamed anyone for the sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, near Fujairah emirate, a major bunkering hub just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

Riyadh has accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes, which were claimed by the Iran-aligned Houthis who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in a four-year conflict seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“I think it is clear these (tanker attacks) were naval mines almost certainly from Iran,” Bolton said.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who is responsible for this and I think it’s important that the leadership in Iran know that we know.”

He declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation into the attacks in which the United States, France, Norway and Saudi Arabia are taking part, but said those other countries and ship owners involved could do so.

Mounting tensions

A UAE bunker barge and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker were also hit. France has a naval base in Abu Dhabi.

Bolton said the tanker attacks were connected to the strike on oil pumping stations on the kingdom’s East-West pipeline and a rocket attack on the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

He said there had been a fourth unsuccessful attack on Saudi Arabia’s Yanbu port a few days before the tanker operation but that it was unclear if it was linked to the others.

We think that the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is a good agreement.

- Mohammad Ali Al Hakim | Iraq’s Foreign Minister

Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated since President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 multinational nuclear pact with Iran and reimposed sanctions, notably targeting Tehran’s key oil exports. Iran says it will not be cowed by what it has called psychological warfare.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed US sanctions against Iran and have lobbied Washington to contain Tehran.

Bolton said the United States was discussing next steps with Gulf allies and the goal was “to make it clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kind of activities risk a very strong response from the Americans.”

Washington said it was sending 1,500 troops to the region after speeding up deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and sending bombers and additional Patriot missiles.

An MV-22 Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron
An MV-22 Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron of US Navy prepares to land on the flight deck of the Nimitzclass aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea earlier this month. Image Credit: AFP

Bolton also voiced concern about perceived threats from the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

“We are very concerned about the Quds Force and Qassem Soleimani using Shiite militia groups and others in Iraq as indirect ways to attack our embassy in Baghdad, consulate in Arbil, our various bases around the country,” he said.

The US Combined Air Operations Center is based in Qatar and its navy Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The US air force also uses Al Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi.

Oman’s Foreign Ministry last week said it was working to “ease the tensions” between Iran and the US.

The ministry in a series of tweets attributed the comments to Yousuf Bin Alawi, the Sultanate’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and cited an interview in Asharq Al Awsat, the London-based newspaper owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family.

In the interview, Bin Alawi warns war “could harm the entire world if it breaks out”.

He doesn’t confirm any current Omani mediation, but says both the US and Iran realise the gravity of the situation. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed spoke last week by telephone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Oman has long been an interlocutor of the West with Iran.

The US held secret talks in Oman with the Iranians that gave birth to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The entire crisis takes root in the steady unravelling of the nuclear deal, intended to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The accord promised economic incentives in exchange for restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activities.

The Trump administration pulled America out of the deal last year, and subsequently re-imposed and escalated US sanctions on Tehran — sending Iran’s economy into a freefall.

Iran, last week, announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium, making it likely that Tehran will soon exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord, which would escalate the situation further.

Iraq’s top diplomat called on Iran last week to respect the landmark deal covering its nuclear programme, which has been weakened by the US decision to withdraw from it.

“We think the JCPOA is a good agreement,” said Iraq’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Al Hakim, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by Iran in 2015 with Russia, China, Germany, Britain and the United States.