By Edward Wong
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that intelligence reviewed by American officials showed that Iran was responsible for attacks earlier in the day on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a critical waterway for the transit of much of the world’s oil.
Mr. Pompeo did not present any evidence to back up the assessment of Iran’s involvement. The assertion is certain to further fuel tensions between the Trump administration and Iranian leaders, which have been at heightened levels since early May, when the White House announced military movements in response to what American officials have said is an increased threat from Iran.
Speaking at a news conference in Washington, Mr. Pompeo said the sabotage against the two tankers was only the latest in a series of recent violent acts by Iran.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security,” he said.
The rapid escalation of tensions in early May between the United States and Iran took place around the time that four tankers were damaged by explosions at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, near the Strait of Hormuz. The explosions that occurred in the same areaearly Thursday morning, which forced crews to abandon ship and left one vessel ablaze, were similar to the incidents last month.
Mr. Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, both said late last month that Iran was responsible for those earlier attacks, though neither have presented evidence. On May 30, Mr. Pompeo told reporters that he had seen evidence of Iranian involvement and said “these were efforts by the Iranians to raise the price of crude oil throughout the world.”
Details of the incidents on Thursday have remained murky, as they have for the explosions in May. Given the widespread criticism over the Iraq War and presentation of faulty intelligence that led to it, the Trump administration faces great pressure from Congress, the American public and foreign allies to lay out explicitly any evidence of threatening actions by Iran.
Mr. Pompeo said the American government’s assessment of Iranian responsibility for the attacks was based on an analysis of intelligence, weapons and patterns of previous actions. He left open the possibility that an armed group in the region tied to Iran might have carried out the attacks, saying that no other forces in the area have sufficient training or capabilities for the operations other than those supported by Iran.
A United States Navy P-8 surveillance plane flying over the stricken tankers on Thursday spotted an unexploded mine attached to the hull of the Kokuka Courageous, one of the damaged ships, a Defense Department official said. The so-called limpet mine resembled the kind of explosive that investigators believe was used against the four ships in the attacks last month, the official said.
The Navy surveillance plane took extensive footage of the attached mine — which crew members on the Courageous also noticed after an initial explosion prompted the crew to evacuate the vessel.
A ship with a Netherlands flag, the Coastal Ace, first responded to the distress call from the Courageous and evacuated the crew members. Govert Jan van Oord, the managing director of Acta Marine, which owns the Coastal Ace, said in a telephone interview that some of the responders noticed something conspicuous on the hull of the Courageous.
“As they conducted the evacuation, our crew noticed an object above the waterline on the hull of the tanker,” he said, referring to what the Navy later judged to be the limpet mine. “We’re not military experts, so we couldn’t identify what it was — but whatever it was, it was the reason for the crew of the tanker to evacuate the whole ship.”
Naval explosives experts were preparing Thursday to approach the stricken ship, to secure and to remove the mine, and examine it for clues about who attached it to the ship, the defense official said.
But before they could do so, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat pulled up to the side of the Courageous, according to two United States officials who said a Navy P-8 surveillance plane captured the encounter on videotape. The crew of the Iranian patrol boat then pried the unexploded mine off the hull of the tanker and sped away, the officials said.
“Iran’s supreme leader has to carefully calibrate his response to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If he responds insufficiently he risks losing face. If he responds excessively he risks losing his head.”
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton have led the Trump administration in taking a hard-line stand on Iran. In May 2018, President Trump withdrew from a nuclear containment deal that the Obama administration and world powers reached with Iran in 2015.
The United States reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran last November.European allies have stayed in the nuclear deal and have urged Iran to do so, but President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said last month that his country would start leaving parts of it, even though international agencies said Tehran had been abiding by all the terms until now.
Mr. Trump has said in recent weeks that he was open to negotiations with Iran, though he has made no effort to start talks. And he posted on Twitter on Thursday, after the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, made a visit to Tehran, that he thought it was “too soon to even think about making a deal.”
Mr. Trump has also said he could take military action, while insisting he does not want war. In late May, he announced he was sending an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East, though that was far less than what some top administration officials had requested.
Mr. Pompeo has made 12 demands of Iran that go far beyond the nuclear issues. In his talks, he has stressed the need to roll back Iran’s “expansionist foreign policy” and tamp down the influence of the political and military groups in Arab nations that are supported by Iran. From his perspective, that includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and a constellation of armed groups in Iraq.
“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful ‘maximum pressure’ campaign lifted,” Mr. Pompeo said Thursday. He added that the administration’s policy continues to focus on using diplomatic and economic pressure to “bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the appropriate time.”
While in Switzerland this month, Mr. Pompeo said the administration was ready to talk to Iran with “no preconditions.” But he has not defined the aims of any negotiations. That statement suggested he might be willing to recalibrate the 12 demands he has made of Iran, which Iranian leaders say are unacceptable.
Mr. Trump has said he does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Iran does not have a weapon now and had not made any moves to increase its production rate of nuclear fuel until recent weeks, following the imposition of stringent measures against the country by the United States. Last month, a senior State Department official said the administration’s goal was to ensure Iran does not get within one year of producing enough fuel to make a nuclear weapon — which was the same red line set by the 2015 nuclear deal forged by Mr. Obama and his aides.
In April, the Trump administration took measures that some American officials warned could prompt retaliation from Iran. The administration ended permission for eight nations to buy oil from Iran, meaning those nations, which include American allies, would be subject to United States sanctions if they went ahead with purchases. The administration also designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an arm of the Iranian military, as a terrorist organization, the first time it had labeled a part of another government at that threat level.
Then on May 5, Mr. Bolton announced he was accelerating the movement of an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the region because of a heightened threat from Iran or Arab militias that it supports. Within days, European allies and some American legislators who had been briefed on the intelligence said the administration was overreacting.
On May 24, when Mr. Trump announced the addition of 1,500 troops to the region, he also said he was declaring an “emergency” over Iran to bypass congressional review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those two nations are foes of Iran, but the countries are not at war. Lawmakers are furious over Mr. Trump’s move, saying the declaration was simply a pretext to sell arms, and are looking into how Mr. Pompeo and State Department officials came up with the use of the emergency declaration and conflicts of interest related to Raytheon Company, the arms maker.
On Thursday, after discussions over legislation related to the military, several members of Congress insisted Mr. Trump would need to get congressional authorization if he ever intended to wage war on Iran.
“Going to war with Iran is not necessary,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts and presidential candidate who served with the Marines in Iraq. “John Bolton and others in the Trump administration are trying to drag us into Iran just as they dragged us into Iraq, using the same tactics to convince a weak commander in chief — who doesn’t have the credibility to say no to war because he dodged serving in war himself — to lure us into conflict again.”
source: New York Times