The United States blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday that drove up oil prices and raised concerns about a new U.S.-Iranian confrontation, but Tehran bluntly denied the allegation.
It was not immediately clear what befell the Norwegian-owned Front Altair or the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, which both experienced explosions, forcing crews to abandon ship and leave the vessels adrift in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran.
Two “flying objects” damaged a Japanese tanker in a suspected attack but there was no damage to the cargo of methanol, President Yutaka Katada of Kokuka Sangyo shipping company said on Friday.
One source said the blast on the Front Altair, which caught fire and sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, may have been caused by a magnetic mine. The firm that chartered the Kokuka Courageous tanker said it was hit by a suspected torpedo, but a person with knowledge of the matter said torpedoes were not used.
On Thursday night, U.S. Central Command spokesman Bill Urban released a video of what the U.S. military said was an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Gashti Class patrol boat approaching the Kokuka Courageous “and was observed and recorded removing (an) unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous.”
Just in: Pentagon video of what it says is an Iranian boat removing an unexploded mine from one of the attacked oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. pic.twitter.com/XSxIPcyV6Q— Philip Crowther (@PhilipinDC) 14 June 2019
The tanker attack will not affect Japanese energy supply, Japanese Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said, although the ministry issued a warning to Japanese energy companies.
Crude oil prices spiked more than 4% after the attacks near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping artery for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf energy producers. Prices later settled about 2% higher. [O/R] Brent crude was down by 0.4% at $61.06 a barrel in early Asia trading.
The United States, which has accused Iran or its proxies of carrying out a May 12 attack on four tankers off the United Arab Emirates’ coast as well as May 14 drone strikes on two Saudi oil-pumping stations, squarely blamed Iran for Thursday’s attacks.
“It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters.
“This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” Pompeo said.
Iran “categorically rejects the U.S. unfounded claim with regard to 13 June oil tanker incidents and condemns it in the strongest possible terms,” the Iranian mission to the United Nations said in a statement on Thursday evening.
It accused the United States and its regional allies, which include Iranian rival Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of “warmongering.” Iran called on “the international community to live up to its responsibilities in preventing the reckless and dangerous policies and practices of the U.S. and its regional allies in heightening the tensions in the region.”
U.S. and European security officials as well as regional analysts cautioned against jumping to conclusions about who carried out the attacks, leaving open the possibility that Iranian proxies, or someone else entirely, might have been responsible.
An unnamed official said the attacks appeared “designed to have a political outcome” and suggested it could have been an attempt to disrupt a visit to Tehran by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have risen since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal last year between Iran and global powers that aimed to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iran has repeatedly warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot sell its oil because of U.S. sanctions.
Tensions have increased further since Trump acted at the beginning of May to force Iran’s oil customers to slash their imports to zero or face draconian U.S. financial sanctions. Iran’s oil exports have dropped to around 400,000 barrels per day in May from 2.5 million bpd in April last year.
Also in May, the Trump administration said it would send more troops to the Middle East, citing what it saw as a threat of potential attack by Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the tanker explosions as “suspicious” on Twitter and called for regional dialogue. In a later Twitter post, Zarif described the U.S. allegations against Iran as part of “sabotage diplomacy.”
The crews of both ships struck on Thursday were picked up safely. The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it had assisted the two tankers after receiving distress calls.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the Security Council on cooperation between the United Nations and the League of Arab States that the world could not afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region”.