America’s military has released a video claiming to show Iran removing a mine from one of the oil tankers hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Yemen yesterday.
Washington last night accused Iran of causing the two blasts, which left one of the vessels burning in a fireball and sparked a fresh exchange of angry rhetoric in an already tense Middle East standoff.
The footage published by the U.S. military purports to show Iranian vessels returning to the stricken Japanese-owned tanker Kokuta Courageous and removing an unexploded limpet mine.
Iran claimed it had sent a search and rescue team to bring the Kokuta’s crew to safety – but America says their real intention was to hide Iranian involvement in the blasts.
Last night Tehran dismissed the U.S. claims, calling them ‘baseless’ and accusing America of ‘sabotage diplomacy’ and ‘Iranophobia’.
The explosions, which forced 44 sailors on the Kokuta and the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair to abandon ship, have also sparked fears over the world oil supply after four tankers were targeted in similar blasts last month.
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The U.S. military on Friday released a video it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the oil tankers targeted near the Strait of Hormuz
Captain Bill Urban, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, issued a timeline that suggested the military witnessed Iranian vessels returning to the Japanese vessel
‘At 4:10 p.m. local time an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine’ from the Courageous, Urban said
Piracy, collisions, missiles: tankers in troubled waters
Tankers such as those hit yesterday operate through increasingly treacherous waters, threatened by piracy, collision and politics.
Around60 million barrels of petroleum product move each day on the seas globally, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
And around a third of this volume passes through the Straits of Hormuz, a critical shipping passage.
This waterway is a principal route for crude exports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq.
‘Blocking a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and world energy prices,’ said EIA in 2017.
‘Chokepoints also leave tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, wars or hostilities and accidents that can lead to disastrous oil spills.’
Thursday’s incidents come about a month after attacks on four ships, including three oil tankers, anchored off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah. As with Thursday’s incidents, the May attacks inflamed tensions between the United States and Iran.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Iran could do damage.
Iran ‘does not have to launch a major war,’ Cordesman wrote in a commentary on CSIS’s website.
‘It can conduct sporadic, low-level attacks that do not necessarily provoke a major US or Arab reaction but create sudden risk premiums in petroleum prices and the equivalent of a war of attrition.’
Yet another risk has been Iran’s move to shut off automatic identification systems to help tankers evade US sanctions on Iranian crude, said Matt Smith of ClipperData.
AIS is used by vessel traffic services and permits ships to know if other vessels are nearby.
In January 2018, the Iranian-owned Sanchi tanker carrying 136,000 ton of light crude oil caught fire after colliding with a bulk freighter in a deadly crash.
As tension ratcheted up again in the Middle East:
- America said that only Iran could have acted with enough ‘sophistication’ to carry out the attacks
- The U.S. dispatched a destroyer, the USS Mason, to shore up its military presence in the region
- Iran angrily accused America of trying to ‘sabotage’ its talks with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, who was in Tehran trying to defuse the crisis
- Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted drones targeting an airport, two days after the same terminal was attacked by Iran-linked Houthi rebels
- Britain and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies, condemned the apparent attacks while the UN secretary-general called for calm
- It was claimed that one of the tanker crews had seen a ‘flying object’ before an explosion
- The price of oil rocketed on Thursday amid fears of disruption to one of the world’s most important tanker routes as a result of an escalation in the region.
Laying out the U.S. claims against Iran last night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said ‘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.’
‘This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to executive 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,’ he said.
The U.S. Central Command also released the grainy black-and-white video which it said showed an Iranian patrol boat removing the unexploded limpet mine from the Japanese ship.
‘At 4.10 p.m. local time an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine’ from the Courageous, said Captain Bill Urban said.
Britain today backed Pompeo’s claim as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK ‘has no reason not to believe the American assessment’.
The U.S. has also dispatched its destroyer USS Mason to the scene to ‘provide assistance’ after the Navy received distress calls from the two tankers yesterday.
An Iranian navy boat tries to control a fire on the crude oil tanker Front Altair in the Gulf of Oman yesterday after it was reportedly attacked with a torpedo
‘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,’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the State Department
Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) render aid to the crew of the M/V Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman
Iran has denied being involved in the attack, calling it an ‘unfounded claim’ in the U.S.’ ‘Iranophobic campaign’
A map showing the approximate location of the two ships which were seemingly attacked in the Gulf of Oman yesterday in the latest Middle East flashpoint
Saudi Arabia intercepts new airport attack
Saudi forces has intercepted five drones launched by Yemeni rebels linked to Iran, in a second assault on an airport in the kingdom’s in two days.
The drones targeted Abha airport, where a rebel missile on Wednesday left 26 civilians wounded, according to a Saudi coalition statement.
Responsibility for Wednesday’s attack was claimed by the Houthi rebels, a Yemeni group linked to Iran.
They are fighting against the Saudi-led coalition in a civil war which has been raging since 2015.
The rebels, who have faced persistent coalition bombing since March 2015 have stepped up missile and drone attacks across the border in recent weeks.
Abha is a popular summer getaway for Saudis seeking escape from the searing heat of Riyadh or Jeddah.
The airport was operating normally today with no fights disrupted, the Saudi-led coalition added.
Renewing Washington’s threat of military action, Captain Urban said: ‘The U.S. and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation.
‘The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests.’
Iran has denied being involved in the attack, calling it an ‘unfounded claim’ in the U.S.’ ‘Iranophobic campaign.’
Foreign minister Javad Zarif said the group he calls the ‘B-team’ – America’s John Bolton, Israel’s prime minister, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – were waging ‘economic terrorism’ against Iran.
Tehran accused America of trying to ‘sabotage’ its talks with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, who was visiting Tehran in an effort to cool tensions.
The Islamic Republic said yesterday it was ‘suspicious’ about the timing of the blasts during Mr Abe’s visit.
His talks with Iran’s supreme leader appeared to take a wrong turn yesterday as the Ayatollah said Tehran would ‘never repeat’ negotiations with the U.S.
Inferno: A fire rages on board the oil tanker MT Front Altair after it was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, in what has been described as a torpedo attack
Smoke pours from the Norwegian-owned oil tanker on Thursday after it was hit by an explosion near the UAE and Iran in an apparent attack which has put the Middle East on high alert
The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze Thursday by an explosion
Timeline: Escalation in the Gulf region
May 5: The U.S. says it is sending the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group and a bomber task force to the Middle East because of a ‘credible threat’ from Iran.
Since then Washington has announced the dispatch to the region of an amphibious assault ship, a Patriot missile battery and an extra 1,500 troops.
May 8: Iran vows to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels starting July 7 if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its nuclear deal.
The U.S. responds by imposing fresh sanctions on Iran’s steel and mining sectors.
May 12: Two Saudi oil tankers and two other ships are damaged in mysterious ‘sabotage attacks’ off the coast of Fujairah, part of the United Arab Emirates.
Washington believes Iran is to blame for the attacks, but Tehran denies involvement.
May 14: Yemen’s pro-Iranian Huthi rebels carry out drone attacks near Riyadh, shutting down a key Saudi oil pipeline.
Two days later Saudi-led coalition air strikes hit the rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa.
The next day the U.S. orders all non-emergency diplomats to leave Iraq, due to an ‘imminent’ threat from Iranian-linked Iraqi militias.
May 19: Trump warns that if Iran attacks American interests ‘that will be the official end of Iran’.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says the ‘genocidal taunts’ of U.S. Trump will not ‘end Iran’.
May 27: Trump says the U.S. is ‘not looking for regime change’ in Iran.
May 30: Saudi Arabia – which accuses Iran of being behind the acts of sabotage and the drone attack in May – gets the backing of Arab leaders in its standoff with Tehran at summits organised by Riyadh.
Iran accuses Riyadh of ‘sowing division’.
June 6: The UAE says a multinational investigation into the sabotage attacks point to the likelihood a state was behind them, without incriminating Iran.
June 12: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Tehran in a bid to mediate between Washington and Tehran.
A Yemeni rebel missile attack on an airport at Abha, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, wounds 26 civilians. The Saudis accuse Iran of supplying the weapon.
June 13: Two tankers, Norwegian and Japanese, are hit by explosions in apparent attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet says that it received two separate distress calls from the tankers in a ‘reported attack’.
Foreign Minister Zarif says the tanker ‘attacks’ as Abe visits are ‘suspicious’.
Mr Abe meets Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who tells him: ‘I don’t consider Trump as a person worthy of exchanging messages with. I have no response for him and will not answer him.’
However, Mr Abe said Khamenei assured him that Iran has no intention to produce, possess or use nuclear arms.
Last night President Trump tweeted in response to the Japanese PM’s visit that the U.S. was not ‘ready’ to make a deal with Iran.
He wrote: ‘While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!’
Meanwhile Russia said it was too early to say who was behind the explosions.
The shipping firms affected are continuing their investigations today, amid claims that one of the crews saw a ‘flying object’ before an explosion on board.
‘The crew members are saying that they were hit by a flying object. They saw it with their own eyes,’ said Yutaka Katada, head of the shipping company which owns the Kokuka.
‘We have received a report saying that something seems to have flew in, there was an explosion and it created a hole in the body of the ship.’
Iran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the ‘Tanker War,’ when the U.S. Navy escorted ships through the region.
The latest round of attacks has sparked fears over oil supplies.
‘We need to remember that some 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne crude oil passes through the straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,’ said Paolo d’Amico, chairman of the INTERTANKO tanker association.
The suspected attacks occurred at dawn on Thursday around 25 miles off the southern coast of Iran.
The Front Altair, loaded with the flammable hydrocarbon mixture naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire.
A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called for help.
The destroyer USS Bainbridge went to the vessels’ aid after receiving two distress calls, the Navy said.
There was also some dispute over who had rescued the 44 sailors, as Iran initially claimed to have taken them to safety – but the Japanese owner of Kokuka said the ship’s crew were rescued by a Dutch vessel, then taken to a U.S. warship.
The Taiwanese oil refiner which chartered the Marshall Islands-flagged Altair said the ship was ‘suspected of being hit by a torpedo’.
The Marshall Islands are an ‘associated state’ of the U.S.
Reports said the Front Altair, travelling from Qatar to Taiwan with a cargo of naphtha, a petrochemical product, had suffered three explosions and caught fire after a ‘surface attack’.
Iranian news agency IRNA claimed that the ship had sunk, but its Norwegian owner Frontline insisted it was still afloat.
Its crew of 23 were picked up by nearby vessel Hyundai Dubai. The crew was made up of 11 Russians, one Georgian and 11 Filipinos, International Tanker Management said.
The Altair’s cargo was worth more than $30million, according to estimates from trade sources.
Meanwhile, a shipping broker said the Kokuka, which flies under Panama’s flag, had suffered an explosion after an ‘outside attack’ which may have involved a magnetic mine.
This satellite image shows the view from above as a fireball erupts from one of the oil tankers in an apparent attack yesterday
The black-and-white footage, as well as still photographs released by the U.S. military’s Central Command, appeared to show the limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous
The suspected attacks occurred at dawn Thursday about 40 kilometers (25 miles) off the southern coast of Iran
This diagram shows the movement of the two ships, travelling from left to right with their courses charted in green, before reaching the points (in red) where they were hit by explosions
The oil tanker explosions came as Japanese leader Shinzo Abe (left) met Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, in Tehran yesterday
Two oil tankers are said to have been targeted with explosions today just weeks after four vessels were attacked in the Middle East (pictured, one of the tankers damaged in last month’s acts of sabotage)
The two ships affected
Sails under the flag of the Marshall Islands, an ‘associated state’ of the US.
Owned by Norwegian firm Frontline and operated by Dubai-based firm International Tanker Management.
Was travelling from the UAE to Taiwan to deliver 75,000 tonnes of naphtha, a petrochemical product, to the East Asian country.
Chartered for this journey by Taiwanese refiner CPC Corp.
All 23 crew members are safe after being rescued by the Hyundai Dubai.
Frontline say the ship is still afloat, rejecting Iran’s claims it had sunk.
Sails under the flag of Panama.
Owned by Japanese firm and Kokuka Sangyo Ltd and operated by BSM Ship Management.
Was travelling from Saudi Arabia to Singapore carrying 25,000 tonnes of methanol.
All 21 sailors were rescued, with one suffering minor injuries.
BSM say the ship is in no danger of sinking.
The company operating the ship, which was heading to Singapore, said the attack had caused ‘damage to the ship’s hull starboard side.’
The Kokuka’s 21 crew were picked up by the nearby Vessel Coastal Ace, leaving the tanker adrift and empty after an engine room fire.
One of the crew members was slightly injured in the incident and received first aid on board the Coastal Ace, while the Kokuka’s methanol cargo is said to be intact.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Persian Gulf region.
Speaking to the security council today he demanded that ‘facts must be established’ and said: ‘I strongly condemn any attack against civilian vessels’.
The European Union called for ‘maximum restraint’ to avoid a regional escalation.
The explosions yesterday came just weeks after four oil tankers were targetred in mysterious acts of sabotage off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah last month.
U.S. officials similarly accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, which are magnetic and attach to the hulls of a ship, disabling the vessel without sinking it.
Matters worsened after two pumping stations on a major Saudi oil pipeline were attacked by explosive-laden drones, halting the flow of crude along it.
High tensions in the Middle East, and belligerent rhetoric from Washington and Tehran, have sparked fears that any sudden movement could escalate into a war.
Last month the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers and the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to shore up its military presence in the region.
Meeting Mr Abe yesterday Iran’s Ayatollah said that the U.S. ‘couldn’t do anything’ to stop his country developing nuclear weapons.
He also took aim at Donald Trump and said he did not believe the U.S. President’s offer of ‘honest negotiations’.
One of the oil tankers burns in the Gulf of Oman yesterday following an apparent attack on the two vessels, just four weeks after similar acts of sabotage against Saudi ships renewed tensions in the Middle East
The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge (pictured), to assist, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman. He described the ships as being hit in a ‘reported attack,’ without elaborating
Dramatic pictures revealed the fireball which erupted on an oil tanker after it was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman
Mr Abe had warned of the danger of an ‘accidental’ war breaking out in the region.
The attacks yesterday also came just hours after Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.
The Saudi-led coalition which is fighting the Houthis in Yemen immediately pointed the blame at Iran, saying Tehran had equipped the rebel group with ‘advanced weapons’.
Saudi officials said the attack ‘proves this terrorist militia’s acquisition of new special weapons’ [and] the continuation of the Iranian regime’s support and practice of cross-border terrorism.’
A rebel TV network acknowledged the attack and said Houthi forces had fired a cruise missile.
The latest crisis erupted after Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani threatened to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with the West, which is faltering already after Donald Trump pulled out of it last year.
Speaking last month Rouhani said Iran would ramp up nuclear enrichment if such help did not materialise.
But the White House condemned what it called Iran’s attempted ‘nuclear blackmail of Europe’ and warned: ‘Expect more sanctions soon. Very soon.’
The threat also sparked a backlash from Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu warned he would ‘not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons’.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said Iranian mines were almost certainly behind the May 12 attacks, but declined to provide evidence.
The UAE said last week that initial findings of a five-nation investigation indicated a state was likely behind the attacks, but added there was no evidence yet of Iranian involvement.
Donald Trump’s White House has not ruled out military action against Iran, although both sides insist they do not want a war.
A week after the May 12 attacks, President Trump warned that if Iran attacks American interests ‘that will be the official end of Iran’.
Zarif retorted that ‘genocidal taunts’ would not ‘end Iran’.
The Taiwanese oil refiner which chartered the Front Altair (file photo) said the ship was ‘suspected of being hit by a torpedo’
One shipping broker said the Kokuka Courageous (file photo), one of the ships apparently attacked in the Middle East today, may have been targeted with a magnetic mine
Last month the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers and the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (pictured in the Arabian Sea on June 1) to shore up its military presence in the region
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said there ‘won’t be any war’ while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. ‘fundamentally does not seek any war’.
The 2015 deal, which then-President Barack Obama helped to negotiate, saw sanctions on Iran lifted in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme.
After the U.S. withdrew from the accord it restored crippling sanctions on Iran, exacerbating a severe economic crisis.
European powers have tried to find ways to blunt the impact of new U.S. sanctions, in the hope of persuading Tehran to continue to abide by the deal.
However, their efforts have largely failed, with all major European companies abandoning plans to do business with Iran for fear of U.S. punishment.
Rouhani slammed European countries for seeing the U.S. as the world’s ‘sheriff’ and said this keeps them from making ‘firm decisions for their own national interests.’
Under terms of the deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium, compared with 10,000kg of higher-enriched uranium it once had.
Washington has effectively ordered countries around the world to stop buying any Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.