World

Initial U.S. assessment blames Iran for ship attacks: official

AP

An American military team’s initial assessment is that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives Sunday to blow large holes in four ships anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. official said Monday.

The official said each ship has a 5- to 10-foot (1.5- to 3-meter) hole in it, near or just below the water line, and the team’s early belief is that the holes were caused by explosive charges. The team of U.S. military experts was sent to investigate the damages at the request of the UAE, but American officials have not provided any details about what exactly happened or any proof as yet about the possible Iranian involvement in the explosions.

The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gulf officials have characterized the damage to the tankers as sabotage. Two Saudi oil tankers, a Norwegian-flagged vessel, and a bunkering tanker flagged in Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, all suffered similar damage Sunday.

Still, satellite images obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed no major visible damage to the vessels.

Details of the alleged sabotage remained unclear, and Gulf officials have declined to say who they suspected was responsible. But it demonstrated the raised risks for shippers in a region vital to global energy supplies as tensions are increasing between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.

The U.S. has warned sailors of the potential for attacks on commercial sea traffic, and regional allies of the United Arab Emirates condemned the alleged sabotage as the tankers were off the coast of the UAE port city of Fujairah. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast and operates from a base in Fujairah, has repeatedly declined to comment.

The U.S. already had warned ships that “Iran or its proxies” could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. America is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged, still-unspecified threats from Tehran.

Citing heightened tensions in the region, the United Nations called on “all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security” and freedom of navigation, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

The scale of the alleged sabotage also remained unclear. A statement from Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said two of the kingdom’s oil tankers, including one due to later carry crude to the U.S., sustained “significant damage.” However, a report from Sky News Arabia, a satellite channel owned by an Abu Dhabi ruling family member, showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.

The oil tankers were visible in satellite images provided Tuesday to the AP by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies. A boom surrounded the Emirati oil tanker A. Michel, indicating the possibility of an oil leak. The other three showed no visible major damage from above.

The MT Andrea Victory, the fourth allegedly targeted ship, sustained a hole in its hull just above its waterline from “an unknown object,” its owner Thome Ship Management said in a statement. Images on Monday of the Norwegian-flagged Andrea Victory, which the company said was “not in any danger of sinking,” showed damage similar to what the firm described.

Authorities in Fujairah, also a UAE emirate, also declined to speak to the AP. Emirati officials stopped AP journalists from traveling by boat to see the ships.

The incident raised questions about maritime security in the UAE, home to Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, the largest man-made deep-water harbor in the world that is also the U.S. Navy’s busiest port of call outside of America. From the coast, AP journalists saw an Emirati coast guard vessel patrolling near the area of one of the Saudi ships in Fujairah, some 130 miles (210 kilometers) northeast of Dubai on the Gulf of Oman.

Fujairah also is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded.

Al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said the attacks on the two Saudi tankers happened at 6 a.m. Sunday. He said “the attack didn’t lead to any casualties or oil spill,” though he acknowledged it affected “the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world.”

It is “the joint responsibility of the international community to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets, and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said, according to the statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

The U.S. Energy Department later said it was “monitoring the oil markets, and is confident they remain well-supplied.”

Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry called for further clarification about what exactly happened with the vessels. The ministry’s spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying there should be more information about the incident.

Mousavi also warned against any “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism by foreigners” to undermine the maritime region’s stability and security. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are staunch opponents of Iran’s government.

Asked at the White House about the incident, President Donald Trump responded: “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens.”

Tensions have risen since Trump withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and restored U.S. sanctions that have pushed Iran’s economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

European Union officials met Monday in Brussels to thrash out ways to keep the Iran nuclear deal afloat. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had traveled there for talks.

“We’re not going to miscalculate. Our aim is not war,” Pompeo told CNBC in an interview. “Our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership.”

Underlining the regional risk, the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the incident as a “serious escalation.”

“Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger,” Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said. Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen’s internationally recognized government similarly condemned the alleged sabotage, as did the Arab League.

The U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, warned Thursday that “Iran and/or its regional proxies” could target commercial sea traffic.

The agency issued a new warning Sunday to sailors about the alleged sabotage and urged shippers to exercise caution in the area for the next week.

It remained unclear if the previous warning from the U.S. Maritime Administration is the same perceived threat that prompted the White House on May 4 to order the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and the B-52 bombers to the region. In a statement then, national security adviser John Bolton had warned Iran “that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

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