US President Donald Trump has blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and said the US wanted international consensus about the threat to shipping, despite Tehran denying involvement.
The attacks have raised fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping route at a time of increased tension between Iran and the US over American sanctions and military moves in the Middle East, Tehran’s proxy groups in the region and its nuclear program.
“Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat,” Mr Trump told Fox News.
He was referring to a video released on Thursday by the US military, which said it showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the blasts that struck the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous at the mouth of the Gulf.
The US military said black-and-white footage it filmed from a US aircraft showed Iran’s Guards on a patrol boat drawing up to the Kokuka Courageous and removing an unexploded limpet mine from its hull.
Video recorded by U.S aircraft of an IRGC Gashti-class patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from M/T Kokuka Courageous. Courageous suffered an explosion while in #GulfofOman. Her 21 crew members were rescued by #USNavy destroyer #USSBainbridge. https://t.co/YpiEUALHWj pic.twitter.com/rjWKJN0qcf
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) June 14, 2019
The Japanese-owned tanker, abandoned by its crew, was being towed to a port in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, after a Dutch firm said it had been appointed to salvage the ships.
The second tanker, the Front Altair, which was set ablaze by a blast, was still languishing at sea, although the fire that charred the hull had been extinguished.
Iran said the video proved nothing and that it was being made into a scapegoat.
“These accusations are alarming,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
Iran had dismissed earlier US claims that it was behind the attacks and accused the US and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of “warmongering” by making accusations.
Last month, the US sharply tightened economic sanctions that are now damaging the economy of Iran. In response, Tehran has threatened to step up its nuclear activity.
Tehran also said it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the main route out for Middle Eastern oil, if its own exports were halted.
Mr Trump, who last year pulled the US out of an agreement between world powers and Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief, said any move to close the Strait of Hormuz would not last long.
Last month Washington scrapped waivers that had allowed some countries to continue importing Iranian oil.
Iran’s crude exports fell to about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in May, starving its economy of its main source of revenue.
US planning contingencies but does not want conflict
Tehran and Washington have both said they have no interest in starting a war.
But this has done little to assuage concerns that the two arch foes could stumble into a conflict.
Mr Trump’s administration is focused on building international consensus following the attacks, US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said.
Asked whether he was considering sending more troops or military capabilities to the Middle East, Mr Shanahan said: “As you know we’re always planning various contingencies.”
But he emphasised the issue of building consensus.
“When you look at the situation, a Norwegian ship, a Japanese ship, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, 15 per cent of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz,” he said.
“So we obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate. We also need to broaden our support for this international situation.”
1 of 4: We applaud the remarkable courage of the crew of the @USNavy’s USS Bainbridge in rescuing merchant mariners from a Panamanian ship on fire following the attack in the Gulf of Oman. Our servicemembers are in harm's way protecting international norms & freedoms.
— Acting SecDef Pat Shanahan (@ActingSecDef) June 13, 2019
China, the European Union and others have called for restraint from all sides.
In a notable signal that close US allies are wary of Washington’s position, Germany said the US video was not enough to apportion blame for Thursday’s attack.
But British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt differed, saying no other state or non-state actor could have been responsible.
Tensions rattling markets as UN calls for investigation
Oil prices rose about 1 per cent on Friday, reflecting market jitters.
Insurance costs for ships sailing through the Middle East have jumped by at least 10 per cent after the attacks.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation of the attacks.
The tanker attacks took place while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan – a big buyer of Iranian oil until it was forced by the new US sanctions to stop – was visiting Tehran on a peacemaking mission, bringing a message from Mr Trump.
Iran dismissed Mr Trump’s message, details of which were not made public.
Iran’s supreme leader @khamenei_ir ’s response to @realDonaldTrump letter via Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe: as for the #US president’s letter, I don’t see #Trump as someone who I can exchange letters with, I don’t have any response to his letter and I have no intention to respond later pic.twitter.com/i75bDBShK1
— Ali Hashem علي هاشم (@alihashem_tv) June 13, 2019
“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said.
Washington has also blamed Iran or its proxies for attacks on May 12 that crippled four oil tankers in the same area, and has said Tehran was behind May 14 drone strikes on two Saudi oil-pumping stations.
Tehran has denied all those charges.