President Trump and Iranian leaders traded accusations Friday over who was responsible for fiery explosions that crippled two oil tankers off Iran’s coast, but both sides appeared cautious not to go beyond a war of words, at least for now, to avoid a direct military confrontation.
After blaming Iran hours after what appeared to be coordinated attacks on a Japanese and a Norwegian tanker on Thursday, the Trump administration considered options Friday but showed no immediate sign of responding.
Options include providing armed escorts to vessels navigating vulnerable shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, reflagging tankers of friendly nations with the U.S. flag to entitle them to U.S. naval protection, and adding more sanctions to what is already a long blacklist.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Pentagon was making plans for possible military action in case of more attacks or efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic chokepoint through which much of the world’s oil passes.
“We obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate,” Shanahan told reporters.
Iranian officials pointedly warned in April, after the Trump administration tightened a ban on Iran’s oil exports and worsened its economic recession, that they might interrupt the flow of oil through the narrow strait. The attacks, which caused no injuries, may have been calculated to show that while Tehran could not withstand a full-on U.S. military assault, it could still rattle the White House.
“Iran’s real interest is to show it retains the ability to strike back,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “The worst thing for Iran is to suffer the sanctions and be ignored.”
U.S. officials said military action against Iran was not imminent. U.S. intelligence agencies are seeking to bolster their initial assessment that Iranian operatives had sabotaged the two tankers, hoping to persuade U.S. allies to join the White House in publicly condemning Tehran.
A defense official played down the likelihood that U.S. warships would escort convoys of tankers in the Persian Gulf. The operation would require allies to contribute warships, the official said, and building that coalition might prove difficult for the White House.
Many leaders in Europe and Asia remain angry over Trump’s decision to withdraw last year from the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by the Obama administration, Russia, China, France, Germany and Great Britain. Under the agreement, Iran dismantled most of its nuclear production infrastructure and admitted international inspectors.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was first to blame Iran for the tanker explosions Thursday. On Friday, Trump echoed the charge in a TV interview, saying a limpet mine attached to one of the ship’s hulls had “probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” although U.S. forces or allies did not recover the munition.
He instead pointed to a grainy video, taken from a U.S. surveillance aircraft, that the Pentagon said shows a crew from an Iranian patrol boat navigating to the stricken ship’s bow and removing an unexploded mine 10 hours after the initial explosion, then speeding off.
“So it was them that did it,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends.”
The tanker, the 558-foot Kokuka Courageous, reportedly was hit midship with projectiles above the waterline after sunrise, but the source wasn’t clear.
"We received reports that something flew towards the ship," Yutaka Katada, president of Kokaku Sangyo Co., which owns the ship, told a news conference in Tokyo. "The place where the projectile landed was significantly higher than the water level, so we are absolutely sure that this wasn’t a torpedo.”
Crews abandoned both the Kokura Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, which was attacked less than an hour later, with an Iranian naval vessel helping rescue the crew on the 826-foot Front Altair. Both ships were carrying fuel products to Asia and were sailing in international waters.
The explosions occurred several hours before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Tehran with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to try to ease tensions and create a U.S. communications channel. Khamenei later said he had rejected Abe’s overture, saying “honest negotiations will not come from an individual such as Trump,” according to Iranian state television.
Trump and Abe spoke by phone Friday, and the White House issued a statement that said they discussed “the circumstances surrounding the attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman,” language considerably less accusatory than Trump or Pompeo had used.
Iranian officials, who quickly denied any involvement in the explosions Thursday, were careful Friday to blame Trump’s aides and allies — but not him, and suggested it might be the work of unidentified actors seeking to create a crisis.
“That the US immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran — w/o a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence — only makes it abundantly clear that the #B_Team is moving to a #PlanB: Sabotage diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter.
The “B-Team” is Zarif’s derisive term for U.S. national security advisor John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan.
They represent governments determined to restrain Iran, isolate it diplomatically and punish it economically for what they call its “malign behavior,” especially its support for militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
After four tankers were damaged by mines off the coast of the United Arab Emirates a month ago, Bolton was adamant in warning that additional violence would be met with sharp U.S. retaliation.
The administration subsequently sent the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and strategic bombers to the region, and an additional 1,500 U.S. troops to help bolster defenses for U.S. facilities and personnel. But Trump pushed back against Pentagon requests for a more robust escalation.
The U.S. case against Iran was not clear-cut on Friday. Some analysts agreed with Iranian officials that Tehran had no incentive to attack a Japanese tanker during Abe’s highly-publicized visit.
“Put simply, it isn’t in Iran’s interest to escalate,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington and New York, said in an interview Friday.
“Why would Iran want a war it is ill-equipped to fight?” she added. “It would be isolated, would turn its new European friends against it, and it would be fighting a militarily superior U.S.”
Esfandiary said the attacks may have been a message from hard-line elements in Iran’s government that they could act against the U.S.-led sanctions campaign and cripple global energy supplies.
But other analysts said Iran’s goal was to create uncertainty and sharply higher prices in oil markets that would encourage Japan and other countries that rely on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to pressure the Trump administration to ease sanctions.
“They wanted to spook Abe,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, who specializes in Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a national security think tank in Washington. “This is not the last iteration of Iran escalating.”
On Friday, crew members returned to the Kokuka Courageous, which was being towed by a tugboat to a port for repairs. It was shadowed by the Bainbridge, the U.S. destroyer that had participated in the rescue on Thursday, according to a defense official. The ship was moving slowly and was not expected to reach port for several days, the official said.
A fire that raged Thursday aboard the Front Altair had gone out and the ship was listing to one side but not in danger of sinking, the official said. Four tugboats sent by the ship’s owner to tow the vessel were blocked from approaching it by Iranian patrol boats, the official said.
Wilkinson and Cloud reported from Washington and Bulos reported from Beirut. Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer in Washington contributed to this report.
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