Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
(photo credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)
Just after six in the morning on Thursday, June 13 the Kokuka Courageous oil tanker off the coast of Iran traveling in a major shipping lane experienced what crew described as an attack. The vessel called for help. It was 10 nautical miles from another ship, the Front Altair, where an explosion occurred. The second vessel also made a distress call. The US has accused Iran of attacking the ships and provided video evidence of Iran’s alleged involvement.
The timeline of events, constructed from open source information such as satellite data, vessel tracking websites, photos of Iranian boats and photos from the US Navy, as well as a timeline compiled by the US Navy and Iranian Farsi broadcasts, helps explain how Iran might have planned the attack on June 13. It also shows how Iran reacted and what it might have thought would happen after explosions damaged two tankers.
Somewhere in Iran the men who allegedly planned the operation that damaged the two ships monitored the incident unfold. It was dawn. The time zone in Iran is half an hour later than the time zone in Oman across the Gulf of Oman. Sunrise would have been at 5:50am local Iranian time in the naval base of Jask. An Iranian search and rescue vessel, the Naji 10, was at port. By the time the ships had experienced attacks the sun was up. Iranian IRGC members would have finished their morning prayers.
In Tehran the Iranian Foreign Minister was awake as well, waiting for the Prime Minister of Iran to visit the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. It was an important day. Iran’s leader had already met with Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani on June 12. One of the tankers coming under attack that morning, as Abe prepared to meet the Iranian leader, was the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous.
The Kokuka Courageous was ahead of the Front Altair in the sealane, with both heading east. Its crew would later say they had been seen flying objects before the attack. As the stricken Altair began to sail in circles, the Kokuka drifted. A tug boat called the Coastal Ace was close to the Kokuka and went to assist her crew who had decided to abandon their ship. At around the same time the Hyundai Dubai, a cargo ship, helped evacuate the crew of the Front Altair.
The USS Bainbridge was moving to assist the Kokuka and a US aircraft, probably a P-8 flown from the Gulf, observed an IRGC Hendijan class patrol boat and “multiple IRGC fast attack craft” near the Altair. At 9:12 an Iranian boat pulled a raft from the Altair from the water and then approached the Hyundai Dubai and demanded the sailors be turned over to Iran. By 11am the USS Bainbridge had met up with the Coastal Ace and rescued the crew of the Kokuka.
The Iranians were closely monitoring the two ships that were attacked. Not only did Iranian boats seek to forcibly rescue the crew of the Altair; one larger Iranian vessel, probably the search and rescue ship Naji 10, was steaming away from the Altair at 11am, according to a satellite photo. The Naji 10 made several trips out to both ships, even though the crew of both had already been rescued.
While these rescues were going on it became clear that Iran had already planned to rescue the 44 crew members. Press TV, relying on an IRIB report in Farsi, reported at 11:28 am that Iran had rescued all the crew of both ships. Iran’s media also said the ships had caught fire at 8:50am, long after the original distress calls. In addition at around noon Iran’s media, including IRNA, reported that the Altair had sunk. The term “completely sunk” was repeated by Al-Mayadeen and other media. Other media in Europe also reported the sinking. IRIB news, which is linked closely to the regime, pushed the “completely sunk” story initially.
IRIB’s role in reporting the events is interesting because it is close to the government. It began its reports at 8:30am. By 9:47 it already said one tanker was sinking. At 11:25 it reported all 44 sailors rescued. In fact only 23 had been rescued forcibly from the Hyundai boat. At 1:33pm it claimed to show “first images” of the explosions on the tankers, using aa 2017 video of a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship. Why did IRIB continually report false information about the rescue, the sinking and the video? It did it in Farsi for a local audience.
Meanwhile, as IRIB was reporting false details, around 3pm in the afternoon an IRGC unit put to sea with one of their fast attack boats. The crew of the Kokuka had reported that an unexploded limpet mine was attached to the ship. The Bainbridge even photographed the mine. The Bainbridge monitored an IRGC Gashti Class boat move up to the Kokuka and remove the unexploded mine at 4:10pm. The US took video of the removal.
A key piece of evidence for what Iran may have thought would happen when this attack was planned come from the fake video of the attack, and the claims of sinking and rescue. Iran’s Al-Alam TV first reported the incident. Why would IRIB show a video of the attack that was clearly false? Why report that 44 people were rescued if they weren’t? Why did Iran’s boats interdict the Hyundai and forcibly rescue the sailors from the Altair in international waters? What was the point? And why remove a mine if Iran didn’t put it there in the first place?
It seems that those who planned the attack believed that at least one ship would sink and that they could valiantly rescue the sailors. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi said after the incident that “we are responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait of Hormuz, and we have rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time.” Did Iran already have a prepared statement claiming to have rescued all the crew, resulting in this false information?
In addition they likely hoped the ship would sink with the evidence aboard, including the unexploded mine. The planners may have been involved in the May 12 incident when four boats were sabotaged off the coast of the UAE. In each incident the planner was careful to avoid casualties. For instance aboard the Altair, which was badly damaged and set afire, it appears the crew was not injured. On the Kokuka, which was barely damaged, drones may have been used to harass the ship first. Was the Kokuka, a Japanese-owned ship, attacked on purpose because of Abe’s visit, or by mistake?
The Iranians didn’t stop trying to get hold of both ships until June 14. An Iranian tugboat reportedly approached the Kokuka and even wanted to push it back towards Iranian waters before the Bainbridge interceded. The behavior of Iran from start to finish appears suspicious, not working with the various navies and boats involved, but trying to steer the incident into its own control.
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