- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2019

Fears of a military clash between the U.S. and Iran reached new heights Thursday as the Trump administration roundly blamed Tehran for fresh attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz that left a massive ship in flames, triggered a spike in global oil prices and set nerves on edge over the prospect of a military response from Washington.

President Trump, in a sharp break from overtures toward dialogue with Iran, lashed out on Twitter that the U.S. is not ready for any cooperation after the attacks. A month ago, four other commercial oil ships were hit by similar mine attacks that the U.S. blamed on Tehran.

Briefing reporters in Washington on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered no direct proof but said only Iran’s military could have carried out the attacks.

The attacks are likely to disrupt the flow of Saudi, Emirati and Iraqi oil in the Persian Gulf in retaliation for the Trump administration’s efforts to shut down Iranian crude oil exports.

“This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” said Mr. Pompeo, taking no questions from reporters after reading his statement.

The U.S. military’s Central Command in the United Arab Emirates released a black-and-white video Friday morning, lasting about 100 seconds, that purports to show Iranians removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, one of the two ships most recently attacked.

SEE ALSO: Mike Pompeo: Iran is responsible for attacks on oil tankers

Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman, said the small patrol boat seen next to the huge tanker belonged to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and called the attacks “a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce.”

The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the two vessels, which were in the Gulf of Oman very near the coast of Iran. Operators from the Kokura Courageous and the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair said the ships were freshly loaded with Saudi and Emirati petroleum products.

The Taiwan-bound Front Altair burned for hours in a blaze that sent up a thick column of black smoke and charred a strip down half the length of the vessel. The Kokuka Courageous, bound for Singapore, appeared to sustain less severe damage.

A color picture released Friday by Central Command showed a hole in the side above the waterline.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a close Trump ally, was in Iran trying to defuse the rising tensions. Japan, a key a buyer of Iranian crude, recently stopped its purchases in alignment with the administration’s embargo push but has talked of trying to ease the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Iran has denied involvement in previous tanker attacks, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the timing of the latest strikes suspicious. It was unclear whether he sought to insinuate some form of U.S. culpability.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly rebuffed a message Mr. Abe was bringing from Mr. Trump about the state of U.S.-Iranian relations.

“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him now or in the future,” Iranian state media quoted the ayatollah as telling the Japanese premier.

‘Clear threat’

Mr. Pompeo, who was CIA director before becoming secretary of state last year, offered no explicit proof of Iranian culpability but said the assessment of Iranian involvement was based in part on similar tanker strikes last month.

“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. He added that the U.S. planned to raise the issue at the U.N. Security Council.

The administration last month said Iran used limpet mines — a type of magnetized naval explosives — to attack commercial oil vessels under Saudi, Emirati and Norwegian flags near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

A confidential assessment last month by the Norwegian vessel’s insurance investigators concluded that Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have organized the attack, according to Reuters. The news agency reported that the assessment concluded a surface vessel may have dispatched underwater drones carrying high-grade explosives designed to detonate on impact.

At the time of the May 13 incidents, international concern was high because of the Trump administration’s accelerated deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the region. The deployment coincided with the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and a growing U.S. sanctions campaign to block Iranian oil from the global market.

About 30% of the world’s oil supply flows from the Persian Gulf, and the incidents Thursday sent global crude prices up by as much as 4%.

Iran was known to use mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the “Tanker War” with Iraq, when the U.S. Navy escorted ships through the region. Some analysts predict a similar situation may soon become the norm.

Tehran appears increasingly poised to break from the Obama-era nuclear deal that other world powers, including Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France, have sought to hold together despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal.

Under the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for relief from United Nations sanctions. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels in response to reimposed U.S. sanctions that have battered the Iranian economy and drained funding for Iran’s military.

Striking back

Such factors might limit the regime’s appetite for a traditional military clash, but regional analysts say Tehran has the capability to wreak havoc around the Persian Gulf with asymmetrical tactics.

Iran can use its naval, air, and/or missile forces and proxies to attack ships anywhere in the Gulf, around the Strait of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman outside the Gulf and in Indian Ocean waters near the Strait,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Iran,” Mr. Cordesman wrote in an analysis, “does not have to launch a major war. It can conduct sporadic, low-level attacks that do not necessarily provoke a major U.S. or Arab reaction, but create sudden risk premiums in petroleum prices.”

Analysts say Iran believes a spike in fuel prices might dissuade the Trump administration from expanding its pressure campaign.

Debate over the situation is heated in Washington. Some lawmakers say Mr. Trump is influenced by National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, an outspoken Iran hawk who advocated for regime change before joining the administration last year.

“I’ll do everything I can to stop Trump from starting an unnecessary war in the Middle East,” Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, tweeted Thursday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Trump should work with lawmakers for an expanded bipartisan mandate to exert sanctions on Iran.

“We must send a clear, unequivocal signal that their actions are unacceptable,” Mr. Graham said in a statement. “I am hoping that the Trump administration will come to Congress and up our sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime. They need to feel pain for this escalation, and additional sanctions would be the appropriate response.”

The Pentagon said the USS Bainbridge destroyer, a U.S. Navy asset in the region, was sent to assist the attacked tankers. The Kokuka Courageous’ crew of 21 Filipino sailors were evacuated and placed aboard the Bainbridge, said a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. The Front Altair ship’s crew of 23 — from Russia, the Philippines and Georgia — was safely evacuated to the Hyundai Dubai vessel.

But Iranian state television said 44 sailors from the two tankers were transferred to an Iranian port in the southern province of Hormozgan. The competing claims could not be immediately reconciled.

⦁ Ben Wolfgang, Dave Boyer and Moss Brennan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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