U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, saying it was an effort by Tehran to raise the global price of oil.
“These were efforts by the Iranians to raise the price of crude oil throughout the world,” Pompeo told reporters shortly before leaving on a trip to Europe.
He suggested he had seen evidence of Iran’s involvement cited earlier on Thursday by White House national security adviser John Bolton.
Speaking in London, Bolton said evidence that Iran was behind the attacks would be presented to the United Nations Security Council next week.
Asked if he had seen the evidence, Pompeo said: “Oh yes. Ambassador Bolton got it right.”
Arab leaders are meeting in the Saudi city of Mecca to discuss drone strikes on oil installations in Saudi Arabia and attacks on four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, off the UAE coast earlier this month.
Tehran has denied involvement.
U.S. envoy to Iran Brian Hook on Thursday warned that the United States will respond with military force if its interests are attacked by Iran.
Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels.
The navy and the ship’s owners offered no immediate explanation on what weapon may have caused the damage to the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, though all believed the ships had been targeted in an attack.
Oil prices higher
Benchmark Brent crude spiked at one point by as much four per cent in trading following the reported attack, to over $62 US a barrel, highlighting how crucial the area remains to global energy supplies. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the strait, which is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.
West Texas Intermediate moved up by about the same amount to just over $53 US a barrel.
Footage from Iranian state TV shows massive damage to the starboard side of one of the oil tankers <a href=”https://t.co/rLdwAealQt”>pic.twitter.com/rLdwAealQt</a>
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the suspected attacks and warned the world cannot afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region.”
He told a meeting of the UN Security Council on co-operation between the United Nations and the League of Arab States that he “strongly” condemns “any attack against civilian vessels,” and “facts must be established and responsibilities clarified.”
The incident in the sea of Oman marks the latest mysterious incident to target the region’s oil tankers. The U.S. alleged that Iran used limpet mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month. Iran has denied being involved, but it comes as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that while Tehran doesn’t seek nuclear weapons, “America could not do anything” to stop Iran if it did.
The comments came during a one-on-one meeting capping Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s high-stakes visit in Tehran that sought to ease Iran-U.S. tensions, and suggest the efforts had failed.
“Security is of high importance to Iran in the sensitive region of the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, in Asia and in the whole world,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, hours after the tankers were evacuated.
“We have always tried to secure peace and stability in the region,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesperson, said the U.S. navy was assisting the two vessels, which he described as being hit in a “reported attack.” He did not say how the ships were attacked or who was suspected of being behind the assault.
Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, preliminarily identified one of the vessels involved as the MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker. The vessel was “on fire and adrift,” Dryad added. It did not offer a cause for the incident or mention the second ship.
Tankers carried methanol, naphtha
A European satellite captured an image of the Front Altair, showing a trail of smoke from the stricken tanker, which is owned by the Norwegian firm Frontline and was en route to Taiwan.
Members of the crew of the Front Altair — 11 Russians, one Georgian and 11 Philippine nationals — were not harmed, Frontline said.
“They were transferred to an Iranian navy vessel and disembarked at a local port. It is understood they are now being transferred to Bandar Abbas,” the company said, referring to a city on the southern coast of Iran.
Japan-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM) said its oil tanker Kokuka Courageous has also been damaged as the result of a “suspected attack,” and the crew of 21 has been safely removed, with one suffering minor injuries. They were also transferred to Bandar Abbas.
“The ship is safely afloat. The hull has been breached above the water line on the starboard side,” the company said.
It said the Kokuka Courageous was on passage from Al Jabil, Saudi Arabia, to Singapore with a cargo of methanol. The Front Altair was carrying highly flammable naphtha, according to a senior company official for Taiwan’s state oil company, CPC Corp.
Abe warns Iran
The timing of Thursday’s reported attacks was especially sensitive as Abe’s high-stakes diplomacy mission was underway in Iran. Japan’s trade ministry said the two vessels had “Japan-related cargo.”
On Wednesday, after talks with the Iranian president, Abe warned that any “accidental conflict” that could be sparked amid the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions must be avoided.
His message came just hours after Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, striking its arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday.
Abe met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday, the second and final day of his visit. There were no immediate details about what they discussed.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, a top government spokesperson, told reporters that Abe’s trip was intended to help de-escalate tensions in the Mideast — but not specifically mediate between Tehran and Washington.
His remarks were apparently meant to downplay and lower expectations amid uncertain prospects for Abe’s mission.
U.S. President Donald Trump “has been briefed on the attack on ships in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Thursday.
Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that the Trump administration pulled out of last year.
Iran’s nuclear deal, reached in 2015 by China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Western powers feared Iran’s atomic program could allow it to build nuclear weapons, although Iran has long insisted its program was for peaceful purposes.
In withdrawing from the deal last year, Trump pointed to the accord not limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program and not addressing what American officials describe as Tehran’s malign influence across the wider Middle East. Those who struck the deal at the time described it as a building block toward further negotiations with Iran, whose Islamic government has had a tense relationship with America since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.
Already, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.