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

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Raf Sanchez MID­DLE EAST COR­RE­SPON­DENT and Roz­ina Sabur in Wash­ing­ton

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

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