The Gulf boils as US blames Iran for tanker attacks
Japanese prime minister’s diplomatic visit to Tehran is rocked as two oil tankers go up in flames, forcing the rescue of 44 crew
Tensions between the US and Iran were reignited yesterday after two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, the second such incident in a month. US officials blamed Iran and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said that the attacks were part of a campaign of ‘escalating tension’ by Iran and a threat to international peace. Tehran denied responsibility. It came weeks after four oil vessels were sabotaged off the coast of the UAE in what the White House said was a covert Iranian operation
THE United States accused Iran of being behind two attacks in the Gulf of Oman yesterday and said it would raise the issue at the United Nations after oil tankers were seriously damaged.
The explosions, which left one tanker burning outside the strategic Strait of Hormuz waterway, marked the most serious incident since the White House warned in early May that Iran was plotting attacks in the region.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said: “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.”
Mr Pompeo said the US assessment of Iran’s responsibility was based on intelligence sources, the weapons used and the level of expertise needed to execute the operation. “No proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” he said.
All 44 crew members of the two tankers were safely removed. The 23 sailors aboard the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were taken to Iran, while 21 more on the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous were rescued by a US warship. There did not appear to be any spillage of oil or chemicals.
Yesterday’s attack came a month after Iranian forces allegedly used naval mines to blow holes in two oil tankers and two smaller ships off the Emirati port of Fujairah. The US publicly said Iran was behind the attack and pointed to similarities with yesterday’s attack. Tehran denied responsibility.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe” the incident in the Gulf of Oman. He previously suggested without evidence that Israel was staging the attacks to undermine Iran.
Responding to Mr Zarif ’s comments, Mr Pompeo said: “Foreign Minister Zarif may think this is funny but no one else in the world does.”
The explosions occurred hours before Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, met Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s leader, on a diplomatic mission intended to try to ease tensions between Iran and the US. But Mr Abe’s efforts appeared to bear little fruit. Ayatollah Khamenei refused to hear any messages from Donald Trump delivered by Mr Abe, the Iranian government said. The ayatollah also said Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons but “America could not do anything” to stop it if it decided to pursue a nuclear course.
Mr Trump yesterday ruled out the possibility of making a deal with Iran, saying: “While I very much appreciate Mr Abe going to Iran to meet Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we.” Both tankers were carrying “Japanese-related” cargo, according to Japan’s government. It was unclear if this was coincidence or if the ships were targeted deliberately because of Mr Abe’s visit to Tehran.
While Iran’s civilian government denies responsibility for the attacks, it is possible the Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to the ayatollah, is conducting operations without the government’s knowledge or consent.
Iran tries to keep tensions between the sides concealed but they spilt into the open this year when Mr Zarif threatened to resign after he was left out of a key meeting while a senior Revolutionary Guard commander was invited.
The attacks capped six weeks of growing tensions between Iran and the US, during which time Mr Trump ordered an aircraft carrier, a bomber task force and 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East. Both the US and Iran say they are not looking for war but Britain and other countries have warned of the danger that the two sides could stumble into an unintended conflict.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, condemned the attack and warned the world could not afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region”.
Mr Pompeo said he had instructed America’s ambassador to the UN to raise Iran’s attacks in a Security Council
‘These unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security’
meeting. “The US will defend its forces and interests,” he warned.
Any fighting near the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil is transported, could cause serious damage to global energy supplies.
Analysts said that Iran appeared to be lashing out to send a message in response to the crippling US sanctions Mr Trump imposed after he withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal.
“I think Iran is showing that it has teeth,” said Charles Hollis, a former British diplomat in Tehran who is now managing director of the Falanx Assynt consultancy. “It’s a way of showing that if they are backed into a corner they are not without means of causing grief.”
Details of the attack were sketchy but the crew of the Front Altair reported hearing three explosions. Aerial footage from Iranian state television showed a fire raging on the starboard side of the ship while the rear also appeared to be damaged and blackened.
The ship was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo”, according to Taiwan’s state-owned petrol company, although there were suggestions elsewhere that mines may have been involved.
The second tanker, Kokuka Courageous, was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the waterline while on passage from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, according to Bernhard Schulte Ship management.
Oil prices rose 4 per cent after the attacks, the biggest surge in five months. Prices later fell to around 2 per cent above the opening level. They remain lower than they were a month ago.
“This is a fairly small increase given the uncertainty and potential knock-on effects of attacks such as these,” said Cailin Birch, global economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit. She said markets had to some extent already factored-in instability in the Gulf after the hostilities of recent weeks.
Iran has warned it will begin enriching high-grade uranium, the type that could be used for nuclear weapons, in July unless Europe finds a way around US sanctions to prop up the Iranian oil and banking sectors. Such a move is in violation of the nuclear agreement and the EU urged Iran not to take this step.
Britain, France and Germany have defied the US by building a financial vehicle designed to circumvent sanctions and allow trade with Iran. But so far there is little sign that businesses are prepared to risk using it.
A huge fire rages on the Front Altair after the attacks in the Gulf of Oman