On Thursday, two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were attacked, prompting the United States Navy to rush to the aid of the vessels in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze.
The United States blamed Iran and denounced what it called a campaign of “escalating tensions” in a region crucial to global energy supplies. American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country’s assessment of Iran’s involvement was based in part on intelligence as well as the expertise needed for the operation. It was also based on recent incidents in the region that the US also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines, which are designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull, to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters in May.
“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,” Secretary Pompeo said.
Iran has previously used mines against oil tankers, in 1987 and 1988 in the ‘Tanker War where the US Navy escorted ships through the region. The fact that both vessels remained afloat suggested mines may have damaged them. Seniors American officials said the US had photographed an unexploded mine on the side of one of the tankers and that the US will re-evaluate its presence in the region as it considers a plan to provide military escorts for merchant ships.
The ships’ operators offered no immediate explanation on who or what caused the damage against the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous. Each was loaded with petroleum products. The Japanese-owned tanker, abandoned by its crew, was towed to a port in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, after a Dutch firm said it had been appointed to salvage the ships. The Front Altair burned for hours at sea and its operator Frontline said an explosion was the cause of the fire and its crew of 23 from Russia, the Philippines, and Georgia was safely evacuated to the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel.
Iran denied being involved in the attacks last month and its Foreign Minister called the timing of the attacks suspicious since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.
Following talks between the two leaders on Wednesday, PM Abe said any “accidental conflict” that could be sparked amid heightened between Washington and Tehran must be avoided. A statement published by Ayatollah Khamenei’s website after the meeting suggested a tense exchange between the two. The Ayatollah had reportedly told PM Abe that, “We have no doubt about your good will and seriousness, but … I don’t regard Trump as deserving any exchange of messages,” and that while Iran remains opposed to building atomic weapons, “You should know that if we planned to produce nuclear weapons, America could not do anything.” PM Abe later told journalists that he stressed with Ayatollah Khamenei that President Donald Trump wanted to de-escalate the tensions, and “I frankly told that to Supreme Leader Khamenei as my opinion.”
CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis Riad Kahwaji said either the international community could push Washington to ease up on Iran or continued attacks could encourage global pressure against the Islamic Republic. The burden, he said, would fall on Western powers, particularly the United States but including France and Britain, to protect regional waters. “If there was going to be a war ... it will be the international community against Iran. No one wants to slide into a lone war against Iran. I would not be surprised to see the Chinese and Japanese sending ships to escort at least tankers and ships flying their colors,” he said, given their dependence on Gulf oil.