Suspected Attacks on Tankers in Gulf of Oman Stoke Worry About U.S.-Iran Conflict

June 14, 2019by Nabih Bulos, Tracy Wilkinson and David S. Cloud
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks to the media in the news briefing room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks earlier in the day on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. (Michael Gross/U.S. Department of State/Zuma Press/TNS)

BEIRUT — Explosions aboard a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday heightened regional tensions with Iran in an already volatile showdown with Washington and sent energy prices soaring in jittery global markets.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo quickly blamed Tehran for what he called “a blatant assault” and cited the action as the “terror, bloodshed and extortion” that is part of Iranian strategy.

The apparent attacks, a month after four other tankers were damaged in mine explosions that the Trump administration also blamed on Iran — without providing evidence — sharply raised fears in the strategically important region that Washington might use such incidents to punish the Islamic Republic even without ironclad proof of its involvement.

Map locating where oil tankers explode in Gulf of Oman.

Pompeo told reporters in Washington that the assessment was based on U.S. intelligence, the type of weapons used, the level of expertise needed and that none of Iran’s proxy groups, which operate in countries across the region, had the resources to carry out an apparent attack like Thursday’s.

“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,” Pompeo said.

He did not elaborate, offer details or take questions in his brief appearance before reporters at the State Department.

U.S. military officials said later there was evidence the Iranians carried out the attacks using mines.

To bolster that claim, late Thursday the military released video taken by a Navy surveillance plane that it said showed a crew from an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from the hull of the Kokura Courageous 10 hours after the ship was stricken by an explosion.

The grainy black and white video shows a small boat alongside the tanker. Several crew members are seen near the bow as one pulls a small object off the hull.

At 4:10 p.m. a patrol boat from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps approached the Kokura Courageous and “was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine,” said the statement by Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

A limpet mine is a naval weapon that attaches to a ship with magnets.

Urban said the U.S. also observed Iranian small boats swarmed around the other damaged tanker, the Front Altair, demanding that the ship’s crew, who had been rescued by another vessel, be turned over to them.

The rescuers, from a ship called the Hyundai Dubai, “complied with the request and transferred the crew” to the Iranians, Urban said.

Hours earlier, dozens of crew members were rescued after explosions on the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair, owned by Norway. Iran has denied any connection with the incident.

The suspected attack on a Japanese-owned vessel came less than a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a rare conciliatory visit to Tehran seeking dialogue.

The United States and its Persian Gulf allies, led by Saudi Arabia, have mounted a steady campaign of diplomatic isolation and economic punishment of Iran, which they blame for militancy in the Middle East.

Pompeo said he was instructing U.S. envoys to stress the issue in a Security Council meeting, while the United Nations’ top diplomat separately urged a return to calm.

“I strongly condemn any attack against civilian vessels. Facts must be established, and responsibilities clarified,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a Security Council meeting on cooperation with the Arab League.

“If there is something the world cannot afford, it is a major confrontation in the Gulf region,” Guterres said.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League’s secretary-general, warned there were sides seeking to “inflame the region, and practice a kind of dangerous blackmail of the international community.”

The Egyptian also called upon the U.N. Security Council to confront whoever is behind the suspected attack so the perpetrator could face “all legal responsibility.”

On Thursday morning, the Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous were sailing in international waters in the Gulf of Oman when they suffered apparent attacks about 25 miles off the southern coast of Iran that led to explosions on board.

The Front Altair reported three detonations, according to a statement Thursday from the Norwegian Maritime Authority. It was not clear what caused the blasts, but they were serious enough to cause a major fire.

Images depicted the Front Altair engulfed in a 15-mile plume of smoke that was captured by NASA satellites; later pictures showed more than a third of the deck scorched, and a video showed a raging fire in the ship’s center.

The crews — 23 on the Front Altair and 21 on the Kokuka Courageous — were forced to abandon their ships, but had been evacuated and were safe, according to press statements by the vessels’ owners.

The U.S. Navy, according to a statement released by U.S. Central Command, had rescued the 21 mariners from the Japanese vessel.

Iran earlier had said that it had rescued all 44 of the ships’ crew members.

Sailors aboard the Bainbridge, the U.S. Navy destroyer that went to assist the Kokuka Courageous, saw a device that appeared to be an unexploded mine above the waterline on the hull of the tanker and photographed it, a U.S. official said.

After the captain of the Kokuka Courageous was alerted to the device, he ordered the crew to abandon the damaged ship, a U.S. official said.

Possible use of naval mines to attack the tankers was one piece of information that led U.S. intelligence agencies to reach a preliminary conclusion that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was responsible for the alleged attacks, one of the officials said.

Last month, Trump administration officials blamed Iran for suspected attacks that damaged four oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates, citing undisclosed evidence that the Revolutionary Guard carried out the attacks using limpet mines.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has promised to provide evidence to the Security Council proving Iran’s culpability, but has yet to do so.

Regardless of who was behind Thursday’s suspected attacks, they triggered a 3% increase in world energy prices.

The explosions occurred near the Strait of Hormuz, which serves as a crucial passageway for much of the oil from Gulf states. At its narrowest it measures a mere 21 nautical miles, yet in 2016 it ushered through some 18.5 million barrels of oil per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Those numbers make it an important choke point; any conflict there would have a staggering effect on trade.

While details of Thursday’s suspected attacks were not clear, said the Norwegian Maritime Authority, it urged Norwegian ships to “exercise extreme caution in the region” and to “keep a safe distance from Iranian waters.” It also raised its security level in the area.

Also unclear was what Iran would gain from such an assault — coinciding with Abe’s high-profile visit to Tehran aimed at salvaging the 2015 international nuclear deal.

Both ships, according to the Japanese government, were carrying “Japan-related” cargo, leading Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to question the timing of Thursday’s apparent attacks.

“Suspicious,” he tweeted, “doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.”

Meanwhile, Abe had brought a message from President Donald Trump to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

Khamenei rejected the letter, saying Iran had “no trust” in the U.S. and that it would “not repeat the bitter experience” of negotiations, in a reference to the 2015 nuclear deal that was repudiated by Trump.

Khamenei also said he considered Trump an unworthy person with whom to strike up a correspondence.

“I do not have and will not have any response for him,” said Khamenei.

Nevertheless, he again emphasized Iran was not seeking the development or use of nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration’s quick public assertion that Iran was behind the latest suspected attacks concerned some senior U.S. officers, who said they feared that the administration was moving too quickly toward retaliating, possibly with military force, without building a public case that Tehran was responsible.

Another option for the U.S. short of military action would be to seek to build international support for steps to safeguard shipping traffic, using naval ships from the U.S. and other countries to escort tankers and other vessels through the Persian Gulf and into the Arabian Sea.

Pentagon officials said they were worried that Iran and its proxies could conduct its own reprisals against U.S. forces or allies in the region if Washington escalates the confrontation.

“We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community,” said Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.

The Pentagon, nevertheless, has substantially increased its forces in the region recently.

Early last month, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its strike group of ships arrived in waters near the Persian Gulf in response to what U.S. officials said was intelligence suggesting Iran was preparing attacks.

In late May, a fighter squadron, manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, engineering units and additional Patriot anti-missile batteries — comprising 1,500 troops altogether — were added. An amphibious assault ship with a Marine expeditionary unit and an Air Force B-52 bomber task force were also sent.

Another amphibious assault ship, the Arlington, with Marines aboard, arrived in the Arabian Sea this week.

Those forces are in addition to the more than 30,000 troops stationed in the region, along with hundreds of fighters and bombers at air bases in Persian Gulf countries.

Critics warned that Trump administration reliance on military pressure, sanctions and other tactics against Iran carried risks.

“If Iran is behind these attacks, it clearly shows that a U.S. policy relying solely on coercion can backfire,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst and Iran project director for the International Crisis Group, said in a statement. “Diplomatic efforts by allies are necessary to dial down the tension, but they can’t resolve it as long as Washington relies on an all-or-nothing approach.”

———

Times staff writer Bulos reported from Beirut and staff writers Wilkinson and Cloud from Washington. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

———

©2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Foreign Affairs

Blast in Lebanon’s Port Capped Deadly Game of Pass the Buck
Foreign Affairs
Blast in Lebanon’s Port Capped Deadly Game of Pass the Buck

The nearly 3,000 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate that caused last week’s disastrous explosion in Lebanon didn’t languish forgotten in the years after an alarm was first raised. A warning was sent to the Public Works Ministry the very day the Port of Beirut blew... Read More

Assessing U.S. Canadian Border Policy’s Future Effects
Foreign Affairs
Assessing U.S. Canadian Border Policy’s Future Effects
August 7, 2020
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON - Canada is not usually at the center of debate on U.S. immigration, but policy changes due to COVID-19 have atypically limited travel to Canada and affected the United States’ and Canada’s control of the movement of people and goods across their shared border in... Read More

Massive Beirut Blast Kills More Than 60, Injures Thousands
In The News
Massive Beirut Blast Kills More Than 60, Injures Thousands

BEIRUT (AP) — A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 60 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble,... Read More

UK’s Truss in Washington to Press for Post-Brexit Trade Deal
Trade
UK’s Truss in Washington to Press for Post-Brexit Trade Deal

U.K. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss will meet with her U.S. counterpart Robert Lighthizer in Washington on Monday as part of the third round of talks to reach a trade deal between the two countries. Prime Minister Boris Johnson put an agreement with the U.S. at... Read More

Trump Says He Never Raised Taliban Bounties in Talks With Putin
Geopolitics
Trump Says He Never Raised Taliban Bounties in Talks With Putin

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says he hasn’t discussed reports that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite having numerous phone calls as recently as last week. “I have never discussed it with him,” Trump... Read More

Permanent Closings Possible as UK Arts Sector Faces Ongoing Crisis
Arts
Permanent Closings Possible as UK Arts Sector Faces Ongoing Crisis
July 28, 2020
by Sara Wilkerson

As the United Kingdom sets out its plan of guiding and supporting its arts industry amid the pandemic, the sector remains in a state of crisis as freelancers in the British theatre sector consider leaving the profession and theatres face the threat of permanent closures.  According... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top