WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said on Friday that there was no doubt that Iran was behind the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week and warned Tehran not to try to close the Strait of Hormuz, a major transit point for international shipping.
“Well, Iran did do it,” the president said in an interview on “Fox & Friends” in his first comments since the ships were damaged. “You know, they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s got essentially Iran written all over it.”
The president was referring to video footage released by the U.S. military that it said showed an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boat pulling alongside one of the stricken ships several hours after the first explosion and removing an unexploded limpet mine in broad daylight.
“That was their boat, that was them,” Trump said. “They didn’t want the evidence left behind.”
The president warned Iran not to try to block the Strait of Hormuz. “They’re not going to be closing it,” he said. “If it’s closed, it’s not going to be closed for long. And they know it.”
Explosions crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday in what the United States called “unprovoked attacks” by Iran, raising alarms about immediate security and potential military conflict in a vital passageway for a third of the world’s petroleum.
Iran called the accusations part of a campaign of U.S. disinformation and “warmongering.”
The explosions forced the crews of both vessels to evacuate and left at least one ablaze, and hours later the causes were still under investigation. Yet the backdrop of steeply rising threats between President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders gave the stricken ships a grave significance even before the facts became clear.
The most compelling evidence to support Pompeo’s claim was video footage released Thursday night by U.S. Central Command. A military spokesman, Capt. Bill Urban, said the video showed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boat pulling up alongside the Kokuka Courageous, one of the stricken ships, several hours after the initial explosion and removing an unexploded limpet mine in broad daylight.
Also Thursday night, the U.S. military released two photographs of the ship’s hull, showing damage and what it said was likely the unexploded mine.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security,” he told a news conference in Washington.
Senior U.S. officials had already blamed Iran for similar attacks last month against four tankers on the same waterway. Iranian officials, who denied any involvement, also rejected assertions they were behind the events Thursday and said Iran had been framed.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote on Twitter. Pompeo, firing back at his news conference, said Zarif “may think this is funny, but no one else in the world does.”
The Kokuka Courageous was about 20 miles off the Iranian coast when it transmitted an emergency call for help after an initial explosion. When the crew surveyed the damage from the first explosion, they saw a second unexploded mine attached to the hull and evacuated the ship, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive intelligence matter.
The confrontation also played out at the United Nations in a meeting of the Security Council, where the acting U.S. ambassador, Jonathan Cohen, told other members that Iran was behind the attacks. Iran’s U.N. mission issued a statement afterward denouncing the “inflammatory remarks” by the U.S. representative, calling them part of “another Iranophobic campaign” of disinformation.
“The U.S. and its regional allies must stop warmongering and put an end to mischievous plots as well as false flag operations in the region,” the Iranian statement said.
Earlier Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed “deep concern” that the new episode might lead to a military escalation.
Besides its importance as a petroleum highway, the Persian Gulf also divides bitter and heavily armed rivals, with Iran on one side and the U.S.-backed Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other.
The two sides have fought for years through surrogate forces in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. Saudi and Emirati forces have been battling directly for more than four years to roll back a takeover of Yemen by a faction aligned with Iran.
Anxieties over the shared dependence on the vulnerable Persian Gulf shipping lanes have always been central to their animosities, and a commitment to guaranteeing the flow of oil through the same channels is behind the substantial U.S. military presence in the region.
Iranian officials Thursday suggested the new attacks might be the product of an elaborate conspiracy by their enemies, seemingly pointing to U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel, which have long urged Washington to take a more muscular approach to Iran.
But many analysts said there was a growing consensus in the West that Iran had been behind last month’s attacks, which took place near the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. And they argued that Iran appeared to be seeking to demonstrate it could imperil the world’s oil markets but without leaving the kind of fingerprints that could trigger U.S. military retaliation.
“As long as there is significant ambiguity the attacks won’t produce a casus belli,” or cause for war, said Jack Watling, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “But Iran is demonstrating its capabilities. It is saying, ‘We can impose a cost on our adversaries in this confrontation, and it will be high.’”
Crude oil prices rose more than 3% in response to the crippling of the two ships Thursday, indirectly boosting Iran’s revenue as an oil producer.
The initial White House response Thursday was measured. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that Trump had been briefed and that the “U.S. government is providing assistance and will continue to assess the situation.”
It was only a few hours later that Pompeo publicly blamed Iran.
The escalation came against the backdrop of a visit to Iran by the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who was hoping to de-escalate tensions between Tehran and Washington and avert any “accidental clashes.”
Abe was carrying a note from Trump to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who rebuffed the overture. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Khamenei said Thursday after meeting with Abe, according to the ayatollah’s website.
The animosity between Washington and Tehran began rising a year ago after Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 deal with international powers that limited Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for eased economic sanctions on the country of 80 million people.
Then, laying out sweeping demands for Iran to alter its policies toward the region, Trump in April ratcheted up the pressure by imposing severe sanctions aimed at cutting off Iran’s exports of oil, the lifeblood of the now-struggling Iranian economy. He also designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a part of the military, as a terrorist group.
In May, citing unspecified warnings of imminent Iranian attacks on U.S. allies or interests, the Trump administration announced it was dispatching an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf as a deterrent.
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” Trump said on Twitter last month. “Never threaten the United States again!”
Iranian leaders, in response, have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a potential Persian Gulf chokepoint. After complying with the nuclear pact for a year even after the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has also raised the possibility of breaching the accord by taking initial steps to expand its supply of enriched uranium.
Some Iranian allies around the region have stepped up their attacks on allies of Washington, fueling fears of a wider conflict. The Houthi faction in Yemen, which is backed by Iran, has launched attacks on Saudi oil pipelines and other targets, and this week a Houthi missile hit the arrivals hall of a Saudi airport, injuring 26 people, according to Saudi news reports.
The attacks in May on the four tankers near Fujairah were relatively minor, causing only limited damage to the hulls. An international investigation presented to the United Nations later concluded that the damage was done by divers deployed from small “fast boats” who had placed limpet mines against the hulls.
On a visit to the United Arab Emirates about two weeks ago, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said Iran was “almost certainly” responsible. A few days later, Pompeo called the attacks “efforts by the Iranians to raise the price of crude oil.”
The explosions that disabled the tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday were far more severe.
Both took place around dawn, with distress calls at 6:12 a.m. and 7 a.m., according to a statement from the U.S. 5th Fleet, which said the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer, was “rendering assistance.”
A Norwegian company that owns one of the ships, the Front Altair, confirmed that it was on fire. The crews of both vessels — about 23 in one and 21 in the other — were evacuated in lifeboats.
The owners and operators of both vessels described the incidents as deliberate attacks.
The Front Altair, registered in the Marshall Islands, was chartered by the CPC Corp., a Taiwanese oil company, to carry naphtha, a petroleum product, from the Emirati port of Ruwais to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
The Kokuka Courageous was carrying methanol, headed from the Saudi port of Al Jubail to Singapore. Yutaka Katada, president of the ship’s operator, Kokuka Sangyo, told a news conference that its Filipino crew had abandoned ship in lifeboats after what he described as two attacks three hours apart.
Shipping industry representatives underscored the channel’s critical importance. “Some 30% of the world’s crude oil passes through the Straits,” Paolo d’Amico, chairman of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, said in a statement. “If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk.”