U.S. Blames Iran for Latest Tanker Attack
Pompeo says no other country could have orchestrated the explosions with “such a high degree of sophistication.”
The Trump administration on Thursday blamed Iran for an attack on two oil tankers at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, an escalation that risks provoking outright conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Early Thursday morning, a Norwegian and a Japanese tanker carrying oil products from the Persian Gulf to Asia reported explosions while in the Gulf of Oman and burst into flames. All 44 sailors on both ships were rescued by U.S. and Iranian naval vessels. The incident came just one month after four other tankers were attacked in the same area, after Iran vowed to close the vital Strait of Hormuz to all traffic if U.S. sanctions on its oil exports intensified. U.S. officials blamed Iran for that earlier attack, though they have not yet presented evidence to back up their assertions.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply condemned Tehran, accusing it of orchestrating the latest attacks, while leaving open avenues for diplomacy against the backdrop of the so-called maximum pressure campaign of U.S. sanctions against Iran. “Iran is lashing out, because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” Pompeo said in brief remarks to the press at the State Department on Thursday.
He said Iran was responsible for the attack based on “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.” He declined to provide evidence to support his assertions.
The attack began early Thursday morning, when U.S. Naval Forces Central Command received two distress calls from the MV Front Altair and the MV Kokuka Courageous, two oil tankers steaming into the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. A U.S. destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, rescued 21 crew members from the Kokuka Courageous who had to abandon their burning vessel. An Iranian naval vessel took in the sailors from the other hit tanker.
The ongoing showdown between Washington and Tehran has rattled Democratic lawmakers, who fear a full-scale conflict with Iran. A group of House Democrats have pushed for amendments in a defense markup bill to ensure no existing legal authorizations for using military force would apply to Iran.
“A war with Iran would be an unconstitutional and illegal strategic blunder,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna in a statement. “Congress must act now to prevent another costly and needless war.”
The U.S. Mission to the United Nations called for a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council late Thursday to discuss the second attack against oil tankers in just over a month. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the 15-nation council that it must “act against those responsible.” He warned that “some parties in the region are trying to instigate fires in our region, and we must be aware of that.”
Thursday’s strikes may indicate that Iran will not take America’s maximum pressure campaign lying down. U.S. officials hope to squeeze off nearly all of Iran’s oil exports to force the regime to make sweeping concessions, abandon its nuclear program, and stop funding terrorist groups. In response, Iran’s leaders have vowed to fight back. The May bombings, some analysts say, appeared to be a low-intensity, carefully planned message that Iran can interfere with one of the world’s most important chokepoints at will. The latest attacks ratchet up the volume of that defiance.
“The message is simple: Iran will not submit quietly, and its enemies are more vulnerable than they think,” said Matthew Reed, the vice president at Foreign Reports, an energy consultancy.
Pompeo appeared to leave open a diplomatic off-ramp. “Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time, to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the broad range of threats,” he said. The Trump administration in May 2018 unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons, but now says it wants to pursue the diplomatic route.
“Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed, and extortion,” Pompeo added.
If, as U.S. officials and many regional experts believe, Iran was behind the latest strikes, their timing was conspicuous. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in his second day of talks with Iranian leaders precisely when the ships—one of which is Japanese-owned—were attacked. Abe has sought to act as a mediating force between the United States and Iran, with which it has long maintained cordial relations, including importing oil until the latest round of sanctions. But Abe’s apparent effort to deliver a letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to Iran’s supreme leader was coldly rebuffed.
“I don’t regard Trump as deserving any exchange of messages and have no response for him and will give no response,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, according to his official website.
Many see the attacks on shipping as a way for Iran to make clear that the U.S. unilateral sanctions pressure will carry a cost in terms of regional instability, including higher oil prices and concerns for the freedom of navigation. Crude prices shot up on the heels of the attack, with Brent crude, a global benchmark for oil prices, climbing as high as 4 percent throughout the day.
“The attacks could have been designed to put an exclamation point on Iran’s warnings to Abe about the risks of instability in the region,” said Ayham Kamel, the Middle East and North Africa head of the Eurasia Group political consultancy. “Indeed, combined with the four incidents [last month], today’s attacks appear to be part of a systematic Iranian effort to demonstrate that peace and security in the Gulf is contingent on its own economic stability.”
Some experts fear the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to Iran—which has led to an open breach with longtime European allies, as well as with China and Russia—is counterproductive.
“If Iran is behind these attacks, it clearly shows that a U.S. policy relying solely on coercion can backfire,” said Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst and the Iran Project director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “Diplomatic efforts by allies are necessary to dial down the tension, but they can’t resolve it as long as Washington relies on an all-or-nothing approach.”
Last week, diplomats from the United Arab Emirates, Norway, and Saudi Arabia briefed Security Council members on their findings regarding the May 12 attack against four tankers in the same region. While, unlike the United States, those countries stopped short of blaming Iran directly, they said it was a sophisticated attack most likely carried out on behalf of a state actor.
“There are strong indications that the four attacks were part of a sophisticated and coordinated operation carried out by an actor with significant operational capacity, most likely a state actor,” according to a joint statement by the three countries.
Foreign Policy’s Pentagon reporter Lara Seligman contributed to this report.
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer