U.S. blaming Iran for oil tanker attack, weighing all options in response
By Tracy Wilkinson, David S. Cloud and Nabih Bulos
Los Angeles Times
Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were damaged in suspected attacks on Thursday. The Navy and the ship’s owners offered no immediate explanation on what weapon caused the damage, though all believed the ships had been targeted in an attack.
President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders traded accusations Friday over who was responsible for fiery explosions that crippled two oil tankers off Iran’s coast, but both sides also appeared cautious not to go beyond a war of words, at least for now, to avoid a direct military confrontation.
After blaming Iran quickly and decisively, the White House came under pressure to respond but showed no immediate signs of doing so.
Options include providing armed escorts to vessels navigating vulnerable shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, reflagging tankers of friendly nations with the U.S. flag to entitle them to U.S. naval protection, and adding more sanctions.
A day after the Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo formally blamed Iran, Trump echoed the assessment in a TV interview, saying a limpet mine attached to one of the ship’s hulls had “Iran written all over it,” although U.S. forces or allies did not recover the munition.
He instead pointed to a video, taken from a U.S. surveillance aircraft, that the Pentagon said shows a crew from an Iranian patrol boat navigating to the stricken ship’s bow and removing an unexploded mine 10 hours after the initial explosion, and then speeding off.
“So it was them that did it,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends.”
The White House was more circumspect after Trump spoke by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in Tehran this week in an apparently unsuccessful effort to ease tensions and create a U.S. communications channel with Iranian leaders.
Trump and Abe discussed “the circumstances surrounding the attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement that did not specifically blame Iran.
Iranian officials, who quickly denied any involvement in the explosions Thursday, were careful Friday to blame one of Trump’s hawkish aides — but not him.
“That the US immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran — w/o a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence — only makes it abundantly clear that the #B-Team is moving to a #PlanB: Sabotage diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter.
The “B-Team” is Zarif’s derisive reference to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
They represent governments determined to restrain Iran, isolate it diplomatically and punish it economically for what they call its “malign behavior,” especially its support for militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
After four tankers were damaged by mines in the Gulf of Oman a month ago, Bolton was adamant in warning that additional violence would be met with sharp U.S. retaliation.
The administration subsequently sent the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and strategic bombers to the region, and added an additional 1,500 U.S. troops to help bolster defenses for U.S. facilities and personnel. But Trump pushed back against Pentagon requests for a more robust escalation.
The U.S. case against Iran was not clear-cut on Friday. Some analysts agreed with Iranian officials that Tehran had no incentive to attack the tankers, one of which was owned by a Japanese company, during Abe’s highly publicized visit.
“Put simply, it isn’t in Iran’s interest to escalate,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington and New York, said in an interview on Friday.
“Why would Iran want a war it is ill-equipped to fight?” he added. “It would be isolated, would turn its new European friends against it, and it would be fighting a militarily superior U.S.”
Yet the attacks, which left the ships ablaze, seemed calibrated to cause visible damage but avoid loss of life. Esfandiary said they may have been a message from hard-line elements in Iran’s government that they could act against the U.S.-led sanctions campaign and cripple global energy supplies.
But other analysts said Iran’s goal was not war but chaos and uncertainty in oil markets that would encourage Japan and other countries dependent on the Persian Gulf for most of their energy to pressure the Trump administration to ease sanctions.
“They wanted to spook Abe,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, who specializes in Iran at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a national security think tank in Washington. “This is not the last iteration of Iran escalating.”
The explosions Thursday morning seriously damaged the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair in international waters in the Gulf of Oman, about 25 miles off the southern coast of Iran. All crew members were rescued and no injuries were reported.
Hours later, Pompeo branded the episode as a “blatant assault” by Iran aimed at disrupting navigational routes and driving up oil prices.
The Pentagon later released a video that it said showed a crew from an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from the hull of the Kokura Courageous. Iran did not comment on the video.
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