Gulf on Edge as Conflicting Accounts of Tanker Attacks Swirl
The U.S. political and military standoff with Iran hardened as conflicting narratives about a pair of attacks on tankers near the Persian Gulf stoked regional tensions and raised the risk of a miscalculation.
With U.S.-Iranian relations already at a low point, American officials released images they said showed that Iran was involved in a mine blast that forced the evacuation of a tanker near the entrance to the Gulf on Thursday. Tehran denied involvement, and the owner of the ship refuted the U.S. assertion that the blast came from a mine, adding to the confusion over what happened and who was responsible.
While both sides have said they’re not looking for war, events have taken on a momentum of their own with U.S. and Iranian forces bolstering their military presence. Even so, investors took the risk in their stride. Brent oil futures in London traded slightly lower on Friday at $61.15 a barrel, set for a weekly declined as concern about faltering demand outweighed those of Middle East tensions.
“I don’t think there’s any conclusive evidence that Iran was to blame,” Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd. in London, said on Bloomberg Television. “Clearly political tensions are ratcheting higher,” she said, while cautioning that other groups in the region could also have carried out the attacks. “We just don’t have enough proof right now,” said Sen.
In a press statement on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ran through a list of recent incidents the U.S. has pinned on Iran, from previous tanker blasts to missiles fired at a Saudi airport to a car bomb in Afghanistan.
“This is only the latest in a series of attacks instigated by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogates against American and allied interests,” Pompeo said. He referred to an Iranian threat in April to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to open ocean and one of the world’s most important energy-transit chokepoints, and said that Iran was “now executing on that promise.”
Senior Trump administration officials said earlier Thursday that the U.S. was considering a number of responses, including the possibility of providing naval escorts to commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. An American military response hasn’t been ruled out, they said, and all options are on the table.
Pompeo also said that U.S. efforts backed by President Donald Trump to get Iran to negotiate have been rebuffed by Iran’s leadership. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on an “historic” trip to convince Iran to de-escalate and enter into talks, but was rejected by Iran’s supreme leader, who said he had no response to Trump.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani threw blame for the increased tensions at the U.S., saying Trump was using America’s “economic, financial and military capabilities as tools” in order to “destroy international rules and structures,” according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency on Friday.
In an unusual step, U.S. Central Command released video footage of what it said was an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous tanker after another mine had detonated and damaged it. The blurry footage showing a small boat pulling up next to the tanker and crew removing an object from its hull was taken by U.S. aircraft in the region, according to a tweet by the U.S. Navy.
But in remarks to Japanese media, the president of the company that owns the ship said the vessel wasn’t damaged by a mine. “A mine doesn’t damage a ship above sea level,” said Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo, the owner and operator of the vessel. “We aren’t sure exactly what hit, but it was something flying towards the ship,” he said.
The tanker was carrying 225,000 tons of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Asia and was flying a Panama flag. It was attacked twice in incidents three hours apart, forcing the crew to evacuate. It’s unlikely to sink or lose fuel or good onboard, but the vessel will need to be repaired, Katada said. The U.S. said the ship’s crew was rescued by a Dutch tug and later taken aboard the USS Bainbridge.
The crew of a second damaged tanker, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, was put aboard a Revolutionary Guards Corp vessel, the U.S. said. That ship was sailing in international waters when it was damaged by an explosion, and that the episode was being treated as a “hostile attack,” its manager said. The ship had loaded a cargo of naphtha in Abu Dhabi and was bound for Taiwan, a company official said.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that Iran’s enemies may have been behind the attacks and reiterated calls for a regional dialogue.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday. That comment was mocked by Pompeo, who described it as “sardonic” and said that while Zarif might have thought it was funny, no one else in the world did.
Japan’s Abe was in Tehran meeting officials in what was seen as an effort to help ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Pompeo said the attack was tantamount to Iran insulting Japan as Abe was trying to seek peace.
The episode came a day after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.
The prospects of conflict have heightened since the administration tightened its sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early May, following Trump’s decision a year ago to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.