Some U.S. Allies Balk at Blaming Iran for Tanker Attack

Conflicting accounts of the incidents in the Gulf of Oman stir further confusion in an increasingly volatile region.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks from the State Department briefing room in Washington on June 13.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks from the State Department briefing room in Washington on June 13. Win McNamee/Getty Images

A day after two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, some U.S. allies were reluctant to join the Trump administration in forthrightly blaming Iran for the incident as conflicting accounts emerged, adding an element of uncertainty to the rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to blame Iran for the Thursday attacks, which targeted a Norwegian-owned and a Japanese-owned vessel carrying petroleum products in the strategic chokepoint through which much of the world’s oil travels. The U.S. Defense Department released black-and-white video footage purportedly demonstrating that Iran is behind the attack, but some of the United States’ allies have held back from explicitly blaming Iran so far—including Japan and Norway. For its part, the Iranian government denied the U.S. accusations that it was involved.

U.S. Central Command took the unusual step of releasing footage of the incident, which it says shows Iranian special forces removing an unexploded mine from the side of one of the oil tankers damaged in the incident, a few hours after the attack. The Japanese owner of one of the tankers contradicted the account put forth by the U.S. military, saying the vessel was struck by a flying projectile and not a mine or torpedo, adding further confusion.

After the U.K. government conducted its own assessment, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Friday backed up Centcom’s account, saying in a statement that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was “almost certainly” behind the attacks and calling on Tehran to “cease all forms of destabilizing activity.”

But other U.S. allies, which have parted ways with Washington over its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, haven’t gone as far and appear to be treading carefully around a potentially explosive diplomatic standoff between Washington and Tehran. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the video evidence isn’t sufficient by itself. “The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me,” he told reporters on a visit to Oslo, Norway.

Some U.S. allies may not “want to be seen as bandwagoning with a U.S. administration that may be seen as a loose cannon on this,” said Michael Eisenstadt, an expert on the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “They’re going to want to wait until their intelligence agencies get from the American intelligence community our assessments and forensics,” he said. “They’ll want to have their own intelligence people look at the ships before they arrive at their own judgment.”

Eisenstadt said the attack appears to “fit a very tailored pattern with attacks Iran has carried out in the past.”

The conflicting reports of the attacks are stirring further unrest in a region already beset by tensions as the Trump administration ratchets up pressure on the Iranian regime through severe sanctions and diplomatic maneuvering. Trump in April designated Iran’s elite branch of its armed forces, the IRGC, as a terrorist organization, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hit back by declaring all U.S. troops in the Middle East terrorists. The latest attacks also come after the White House hit Tehran with additional sanctions as part of a so-called maximum pressure campaign to squeeze the regime and sent a fresh deployment of U.S. forces to the region to deter what the administration called “credible” threats from Iran and its proxies against U.S. troops.

U.S. acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan emphasized the need to reach “international consensus” on the situation.

“Fifteen percent of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz. So we obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate. We also need to broaden our support for this international situation,” Shanahan said Friday at the Pentagon.

Late Thursday, Centcom released a detailed timeline of the events to shed light on the incident and back up U.S. assertions. A distress call first came from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair at 6:12 a.m. and from the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous at 7 a.m. About an hour after the second distress call, according to Centcom, a U.S. aircraft observed a patrol boat from Iran’s IRGC and multiple fast attack craft in the area. At 9:26 a.m., Iranian forces told a vessel that had rescued sailors from the Altair to turn the crew over to the attack craft. The vessel complied and transferred the crew.

At 11:05 a.m., a U.S. destroyer operating in the vicinity picked up the mariners who were forced to abandon the Kokuka Courageous after discovering what Centcom called a “probable unexploded limpet mine” on the hull following the initial explosion. Nearly three hours later, at 2:05 p.m., an IRGC patrol boat approached the abandoned Kokuka Courageous and removed the unexploded mine, according to Centcom.

Centcom condemned the attacks as “a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce,” vowing that the United States and its partners in the region “will take all necessary measures to defend ourselves and our interests.”

“The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests,” said Centcom spokesman Capt. Bill Urban.

The new attacks came just days after Centcom’s new commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, conducted a round of media interviews warning that Iran poses an “imminent” threat to U.S. forces in the Middle East. He told the Wall Street Journal that the rapid buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf last month following the reported threats successfully stabilized the situation, adding that he may recommend a larger U.S. presence in the region.

Some experts said U.S. partners in the region, while they do not want an all-out conflict, are likely pressuring the U.S. military to do more to respond to Iranian aggression.

“Regional partners like Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates] are demonstrating restraint because they know that a U.S.-Iran conflict isn’t in their best interests. But they still want the U.S. to do more to protect them,” said Becca Wasser, a policy analyst with the Rand Corp. “While they don’t want open conflict, they wouldn’t mind the U.S. giving Iran a bloody nose to send the message that gray zone subversion won’t be tolerated.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned U.S. accusations that Iran was behind the incident, saying they were made without “a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.”

Zarif even went so far as to insinuate the incident was a setup, tweeting, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired.” The attacks occurred while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for talks, in part to try to open a dialogue between Tehran and Trump.

Khamenei sharply rejected such an idea. “I don’t regard Trump as deserving any exchange of messages and have no response for him and will give no response,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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