Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unexpected detour Monday to Brussels to try to sway European leaders skeptical of the administration’s growing brinkmanship with Iran — just as reports emerged that U.S. allies in the Middle East had four of their oil tankers sabotaged in attacks likely to be pinned on Tehran.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said three commercial vessels under their flags and one from Norway were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping and oil export channel off the Iranian coast, although officials were careful not to blame Tehran explicitly while investigations are underway.
President Trump seized the incidents to warn Iranian leaders that “they will suffer greatly” if they engage in such attacks, although other administration officials, including U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Monday’s events — and Mr. Pompeo’s planned trip to Russia on Tuesday to confer with President Vladimir Putin — did little to ease mounting fears that Washington and Tehran are heading for a showdown, with both sides bracing for a potential military escalation.
Mr. Trump fanned the flames with a warning that Iran would pay a heavy price if it played a role in tanker sabotage.
“If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House while meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly.”
Regional analysts said the attacks may have been driven by Iranian desires to disrupt Saudi, Emirati and other oil exports that U.S. officials hope will fill a gap in world supplies as the Trump administration expands its global embargo on Iranian crude. Iranian leaders face growing pressure at home as U.S. sanctions drive down the domestic economy.
With uncertainty over the sabotage, Mr. Pompeo made last-minute travel changes for the second time in as many weeks. He scrapped a planned trip to Moscow to make the case with EU leaders for a harder line against Iran.
The secretary made a similarly unscheduled visit to Iraq after the administration’s sudden deployment of an American aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East last week, in concert with the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the EU, Russia and China continue to support.
Mr. Pompeo visited Baghdad as frustration was reaching a tipping point in Tehran, where President Hassan Rouhani threatened that Iran would abandon the 2015 nuclear deal and begin enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels if the economic pressure campaign — including a shut-off of oil imports — is not eased.
A senior commander from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over the weekend said Tehran now sees the U.S. military presence in the region as not just as a threat, but also as a potential target for Iran or its Middle East allies.
Administration officials said Mr. Pompeo saw a need to gather quickly in Brussels with European leaders. Britain, France, Germany and the European Union — as well as Russia and China, which also were signatories to the deal — have been trying to keep it alive in defiance of U.S. moves.
Mr. Hook, who accompanied Mr. Pompeo to Brussels, put the onus for the tensions on Tehran, not Washington.
“Iran is an escalating threat, and this seemed like a timely visit on his way to Sochi,” said Mr. Hook, noting that Mr. Pompeo still intended to visit the Black Sea resort city for a day of talks with Mr. Putin on Tuesday.
The purpose of the Brussels visit was for the secretary to share intelligence and discuss with the Europeans “the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran,” Mr. Hook said. “We believe that Iran should try talks instead of threats,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo had “very good discussions” with EU foreign ministers, Mr. Hook said.
There were, however, indications of pushback from some, including EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who told reporters she had called on Mr. Pompeo to avoid an unnecessary war.
“It’s always better to talk rather than not to, and especially when tensions arise,” Ms. Mogherini said. “Mike Pompeo heard that very clearly today from us.”
She suggested that Mr. Pompeo’s briefing changed few minds on the wisdom of the nuclear deal.
“We still invite Iran to comply with all its nuclear commitments, and we will do our part on our side to continue to fully implement [it],” Ms. Mogherini said.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he and others in Europe “are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict.”
“What we need is a period of calm,” Mr. Hunt said.
Mr. Hunt’s calls coincided with rising unease, as well as confusion, over the apparent sabotage of the oil tankers. Images of the damaged ships showed one with a steel-piercing rip along its side above and below the water line.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said it was “too early to determine who sabotaged four commercial vessels” but that “suspicion will invariably fall on Iran given the rise in tensions between Tehran and its Arab neighbors.”
U.S. officials said privately that initial investigations pointed to an Iranian role, several news organizations reported, while the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned against a “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” trying to provoke a military conflict in the region.
With the U.S. oil and other sanctions biting harder in recent days, Mr. Vatanka suggested that Iran may have backed an attack on the Saudi, UAE and Norwegian tankers to send a message.
“In an environment of rising regional tensions, limited Iranian operations against the UAE and Saudi Arabia might be designed to dissuade Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and signal that war with Iran will not be limited to Iranian soil,” he said in comments circulated to reporters.
Mr. Hook, meanwhile, said Mr. Pompeo discussed the reported tanker sabotage with European leaders but declined to indicate whether the administration believes Iran was the culprit. “Don’t have any comment,” he said when pressed on the matter.
“Our goal continues to be for Iran to behave like a normal nation and not a revolutionary cause,” Mr. Hook told reporters traveling with Mr. Pompeo. “They have been exporting violent revolution around the Middle East for 40 years. We have put in place an entirely new foreign policy with respect to the Iranian regime. Iran’s era of deniable attacks is over. Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.