Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran was likely behind a coordinated attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman early Thursday morning, the United States said, as “limpet mines” were spotted on one of the wrecked ships.
The attack comes a month after four tankers were sabotaged off the United Arab Emirates in May and will raise US-Iran tensions to their worst point in years.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack on two oil tankers on June 13 was one in a list of Iranian and Iranian-backed attacks over the last month. It was a “clear threat to peace, security and freedom of navigation,” he said, asserting that Iran was disrupting world oil markets and that the international community condemns the assault. The US has instructed its UN ambassador to raise the attack at the UN. “The US will defend its force, interests, partners and allies. We call upon all nations threatened to join us in that endeavor.”
The attacks began after 6 a.m. in the morning when the US Fifth Fleet heard a distress call from a tanker in the Gulf of Oman that had exited the Strait of Hormuz. Forty-five minutes later another distress call was made. Two tankers, the Kokuka Courageous, which had left the Saudi Arabian port of Al Jubail on June 10, and the Front Altair, which had left UAE port of Ruwais with 75,000 tonnes of Naphta on board, were in damaged by explosions. The Kokuka Courageous had been attacked twice, according to numerous reports, while the Front Altair was on fire and its starboard side blackened from the bridge to half-way down its lengthwise bulkhead.
In Oman and Pakistan locals received reports of the explosions and passed them on to Iran’s Al-Alam TV which soon broadcast the first reports. Iranian-linked media pushed the story and were soon running images of one of the tankers on fire and even posted dated video of a different attack by Iranian-backed Houthis on a Saudi ship from 2017.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was nonplussed, calling the incident “suspicious” as it took place during a historic state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It also comes amid tensions with the US and US threats to retaliate for any Iranian attacks. The US said Iran was “almost certainly” responsible for attacks last month on four tankers. But this incident on June 13 was far more serious, forcing the evacuation of the ships.
The USS Bainbridge assisted in the rescue of 21 crew from one of the tankers, CNN reported. A US Navy P-8, which carried surveillance and anti-submarine warfare systems, was dispatched to the scene. The P-8 would have taken almost an hour to reach the area and likely by the time it got there whoever had carried out the attack was gone. The USS Bainbridge is a guided-missile destroyer which was sent with the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group toward the Persian Gulf in early May. It was sent during the rising tensions with Iran after US National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened retaliation for any Iranian, or Iranian proxy, attacks on the US or US allies.
CBS reported that a US Defense official told correspondent David Martin that it was “highly likely Iran caused these attacks.” CNN reported that the crew of the Bainbridge saw an “unexploded mine” attached to one of the ships that was harmed.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov warned against “hasty attempts to pin the blame” after the attack. France also said it was disturbed by the incident, linking it with a cruise missile attack on a Saudi airport earlier this week. That attack was carried out by the Houthis against an airport on June 12.
The attack on the tankers was “well planned and coordinated,” the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners said. All forty-four crew from the two ships were rescued by the afternoon. Iranian media reported that Iran had rescued the crew and that the Front Altier had sunk, but the US said that in fact the Bainbridge had rescued the 21 sailors of one of the ships, apparently from the Kokuka Courageous. The Front Altair had not sunk, although damage to it was significant. A magnetic mine was fingered as the culprit behind the damage to the Kokuka Courageous which claimed to have suffered two attacks. Smoke belching from the Front Altair was visible from satellites in the afternoon.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to speak about the incident in the afternoon on Tuesday. It is the third serious incident since the US threatened against Iranian aggression in May. It comes in the wake of the May 12 sabotage on four tankers and the May 19 rocket attack near the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran meanwhile has been seeking to ease tensions with the US with visits by the German foreign minister this week and also Japan’s Prime Minister.
The price of crude oil jumped after the attacks, rising four percent to at least $62. Around thirty percent of the world’s seaborne crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, according to the chairman of the INTERTANKO tanker association. Iran has threatened in the past to close the Straits, most recently in comments by an Iranian naval commander in April. Iran also has a naval base only twenty miles from the attack on the two ships at the port of Jask. The base has been used to drill Iranian submarines and anti-ship missiles in the past. As recently as February Iran demonstrated its latest missiles and naval power.
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