The perilous contest between the United States and Iran for influence in the Middle East escalated dramatically on Thursday as two tankers were targeted in suspected attacks near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for global oil shipments.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the “blatant assault” on the vessels and said the United States would defend itself and its allies against Iranian aggression in the region. But he provided no evidence that the explosions had been the work of Iranian forces.
The blasts appeared to be a coordinated attack, damaging the hull of a Japanese-owned tanker and striking a Norwegian-owned vessel, which caught fire and was left adrift in the Gulf of Oman.
The incidents were similar to suspected acts of sabotage carried out against tankers near the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah last month and looked to be the latest salvo in the mounting confrontation between the United States and Iran.
As the Trump administration has tightened economic sanctions on Iran after withdrawing last year from the historic nuclear deal, Iran and its allies have responded with calibrated attacks in the Persian Gulf area, Iraq and Saudi Arabia aimed at underscoring the potential cost to U.S. interests, including the international oil trade, experts say.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the incidents Thursday as “suspicious,” and Iran’s naval forces said they were investigating the “accident” in the Gulf of Oman. At the United Nations, the Iranian mission denied any involvement and called the U.S. claim “inflammatory” and “Iranophobic.”
The crews of both vessels were forced to abandon ship. A U.S. defense official said the USS Bainbridge, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that was in the area, took on board 21 crew members from the Japanese vessel, the Kokuka Courageous.
The blast on the Japanese ship appeared timed to undermine diplomatic efforts by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was wrapping up a high-stakes visit to Tehran. He met there with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and was seeking to help mediate potential talks between U.S. and Iranian officials.
Abe had called his talks in Tehran “a major step forward toward securing peace and stability in this region,” the Kyodo news agency reported.
The second vessel, owned by Norway’s Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo,” an official with Taiwan’s state oil refiner, CPC Corp., which chartered the vessel, told the Reuters news agency.
The tanker, called the Front Altair, was carrying naphtha, a flammable petrochemical product that was loaded at a port in the UAE and was destined for East Asia, news agencies reported. The ship’s 23 crew members — 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian — were rescued by a nearby vessel and transferred to an Iranian navy ship, then taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Speaking to reporters, Pompeo said that the U.S. assessment of Iranian involvement is based on intelligence, the type of weapons used and the level of expertise needed, and that no Iranian-backed militia in the region has the resources or proficiency to pull off such a sophisticated operation.
He said the impetus behind the attacks was the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions that U.S. officials say are designed to get Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and its support of militias in various neighboring countries.
Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time and encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the broad range of threats,” Pompeo said. “Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed and extortion.
In New York, the U.S. representative to the United Nations blamed Tehran for the blasts during a meeting of the Security Council, drawing a sharp response from the Iranian mission.
Iran categorically rejects the U.S. unfounded claim, the mission said in a statement.
The U.S. economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people as well as its massive military presence in the region have been and continue to be the main sources of insecurity and instability in the wider Persian Gulf region and the most significant threat to its peace and security, the statement continued.