Official: Initial US assessment blames Iran for ship attacks

Iran used explosives to blow holes in four ships – including two Saudi tankers – anchored in the Persian Gulf, a US official has claimed as America and Tehran move closer to the brink of war.

The unnamed official said each ship has a hole between five and ten foot in it, near or just below the water line with an American military team’s initial assessment that Iran or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives charges to carry out the attacks on Sunday off the UAE.

Asked about the sabotage, which one tanker association suggested was caused by a ‘weapon’, US President Donald Trump warned that Tehran would ‘suffer greatly’ if it enraged Washington, predicting a ‘bad problem for Iran if something happens’.

The incident, in the Gulf of Oman, has sparked fears of a looming military confrontation along the world’s most important oil artery following the collapse of the 2015 deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Saudi and UAE officials have been tight-lipped about the extent of the damage but pictures showed at least one tanker with a hole in its hull. The nature of the sabotage, which happened in heavily patrolled waters where dozens of tankers are moored up, has sparked speculation about the possible use of unmanned vessels, speedboats or even armed drones.

Tehran has distanced itself from the apparent attacks, warning of ‘adventurism’ by foreign players to disrupt maritime security while Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has pledged the Islamic republic is ‘too great to be intimidated by anyone’.

But amid spiralling tensions in recent days, the US has deployed B-52 bombers and an assault ship to bolster an aircraft carrier in the region. Britain has warned of the risk of a conflict breaking out ‘by accident’ in the Gulf.

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan proposed a revamped military plan at a meeting with senior national security aides that would send up to 120,000 US troops to the Middle East were Iran to attack American forces or speed up nuclear weapons development, The New York Times reported. 

Meanwhile, Spain has temporarily pulled one of its frigates that’s part of a U.S.-led combat fleet from near the Persian Gulf. Spanish media, citing government sources, said Madrid is concerned that it could be dragged to an unwanted conflict.

The Ministry of Defense said the Mendez Nunez, with 215 sailors on board, will not cross the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf together with the USS Abraham Lincoln. The Spanish frigate was the only non-U.S. vessel in the fleet. 

This morning, Iranian parliamentary spokesman Behrouz Nemati said the attacks could be blamed on ‘Israeli mischief’,  without providing any details on what role Israel may have played in the incident. 

As tensions spiralled today, oil prices moved higher with Brent crude futures at $70.30 a barrel at – up seven cents, or 0.1 per cent, from their last close. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at $61.11 per barrel, up seven cents, or 0.1 per cent, from their previous settlement. 

Shipping experts, meanwhile, have warned of the threat of conflict amid fears shipping lanes in the Gulf could become flashpoints as tinderbox relations between the US, its Allies and Iran boil over.

Svetlana Lobaciova, from Gibson Shipbrokers, told the Financial Times: ‘We are worried that there could be some military escalation in the Strait of Hormuz that could affect exports out of the region.

‘But, at this stage, we do not know what exactly has happened and how significant this is.’

The executive director at the UAE’s  National Media Council, Jaber Al Lamki said the incident was ‘an attempt to sabotage not just boats, but one aimed at undermining global oil supplies and maritime security.’

But a senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, suggested Gulf states were to blame for turning the region into a military zone.

He told state news agency IRNA: ‘There are groups whose interests lay in making the region insecure. Iran and the US need to agree on a red line… so that third parties cannot exploit the situation.’

Citing heightened tensions in the region, the United Nations called on ‘all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security’ and freedom of navigation, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. 

The scale of the alleged sabotage remains unclear. A statement from Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said two of the kingdom’s oil tankers, including one due to later carry crude to the U.S., sustained ‘significant damage.’ 

However, a report from Sky News Arabia, a satellite channel owned by an Abu Dhabi ruling family member, showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.

The oil tankers were visible in satellite images provided to the AP by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies. A boom surrounded the Emirati oil tanker A. Michel, indicating the possibility of an oil leak. The other three showed no visible major damage from above. 

Intertanko, an association of independent tanker owners and operators, said it had seen images showing that ‘at least two ships have holes in their sides due to the impact of a weapon’. 

The U.S. had earlier warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region, and America has moved additional ships and aircraft into the region.

The incident comes after months of increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, which the U.S. accuses of threatening American interests and allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.    

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday called Iran a ‘major destabilizing force’ in the Middle East while Britain warned of the danger of a war being started in the Gulf by accident. 

Saudi Arabia has condemned ‘acts of sabotage’ in the Gulf but the scale of the damage remains unclear.

The country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom’s two oil tankers, including one due to carry crude oil to the U.S., sustained ‘significant damage’ off the coast of Fujairah.

However, a report from Sky News Arabia showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.

The MT Andrea Victory, another of the allegedly targeted ships, sustained a hole in its hull just above its waterline from ‘an unknown object,’ its owner said.

Pictures of the Andrea Victory, which the company said was ‘not in any danger of sinking,’ showed damage similar to what the firm described.

Emirati officials identified the third ship as the Saudi-flagged oil tanker Amjad. Ship-tracking data showed the vessel still anchored off Fujairah, apparently not in immediate distress.

The fourth ship was the A. Michel, a bunkering tanker flagged in Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The Saudi minister said the attacks on the two Saudi tankers happened at 6am on Sunday.

He said ‘the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill,’ though he acknowledged it affected ‘the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world.’

One U.S. official said: ‘This is what Iran does … The sort of thing you could see Iran doing … It fits their MO [modus operandi].’  

Emirati officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the sabotage or say who might have been responsible.

Reports in Lebanon and Iran had earlier claimed there were explosions near the UAE port but there has been no evidence to support their claims. 

The apparent attacks come after the U.S. warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. 

Washington has yet to officially respond to the claims of sabotage, although the U.S. energy department said it was monitoring world oil markets.

American naval investigators are also believed to be helping the UAE with their inquiries.

Meanwhile the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the alleged sabotage as a ‘serious escalation’ in an overnight statement.

‘Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger,’ Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said.

Bahrain, Egypt and the internationally recognized government of Yemen have also condemned the alleged sabotage.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents ‘worrisome and dreadful’ and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said ‘saboteurs from a third country’ could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Speaking earlier, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK was ‘very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side’. 

Fujairah’s port is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded.

Washington’s Energy Information Administration has called the Strait of Hormuz ‘the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint’.

In recent days the U.S. has warned ships that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. 

The US has already strengthened its military presence in the region, including deploying a number of strategic B-52 bombers and the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group in response to alleged Iranian threats.

America is also sending USS Arlington, carrying Marines, as well as a Patriot missile defense system.

The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship carrying Marines and warplanes, has just left the Persian Gulf and is nearby in the Arabian Sea.

Pompeo scrapped a planned visit to Moscow and headed to Brussels instead for talks with European officials on Iran.

Tensions have flared up again in recent days since Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani warned his country could begin ramping up uranium enrichment if a controversial 2015 deal was not rewritten.

Trump last year withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal and restored US sanctions that have pushed Iran’s economy into crisis.

Tehran has demanded that the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia help Iran to dodge U.S. sanctions.

European powers have tried to find ways to blunt the impact of new U.S. sanctions, in the hope of persuading Tehran to continue to abide by the deal.

However, their efforts have largely failed, with all major European companies abandoning plans to do business with Iran for fear of U.S. punishment.

Rouhani said last week that Iran would ramp up nuclear enrichment if fresh help did not materialize.

White House defense aide Tim Morrison condemned Iran’s attempted ‘nuclear blackmail of Europe’ and warned: ‘Expect more sanctions soon. Very soon.’

Rouhani’s comments also sparked outrage in Europe, as Britain warned of ‘consequences’ if Iran gives up its nuclear commitments.

The threat also sparked a backlash from Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu warned he would ‘not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons’.

Netanyahu, who has accused Iran of breaching the deal, said Israel ‘will continue to fight those who seek to take our lives’.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday changed the schedule for his latest trip to Europe, replacing a stop in Moscow for one in Brussels to discuss Iran.  

We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,’ Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned.

‘Most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to renuclearization. 

‘Because if Iran becomes a nuclear power, its neighbors are likely to want to become nuclear powers. This is already the most unstable region in the world, and this would be a massive step in the wrong direction.’  

The U.S. State Department billed Monday’s talks in Brussels as a chance ‘to discuss recent threatening actions and statements’ by Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he had told Pompeo during their Monday meeting: ‘We do not want it to come to a military conflict.’

It was clear that Europe and the United States were ‘going about it in different ways … taking different courses,’ he said.   

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