WASHINGTON/TOKYO - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the U.S. government blames Iran for attacks on two oil tankers — including one operated by a Tokyo-based company — in the Gulf of Oman, casting it as the latest in a series of “provocative actions” that have sharply raised tensions in the region.
The tankers were attacked Thursday near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, pushing up oil prices and fueling concerns about further tensions in the Middle East.
Pompeo said Iran “insulted Japan” by attacking the Japanese-owned vessel, the Kokuka Courageous, at the time of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s landmark visit to Iran for talks with the country’s leaders aimed at defusing tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The Kokuka Courageous was left ablaze and drifting in the attacks. The other vessel also caught fire.
All 44 crew members from the two tankers were safe, though one of them was slightly injured.
The U.S. assessment of Iran’s responsibility for the attack, which forced the evacuation of the crews in international waters, was based in part on intelligence as well as the expertise needed to carry out the operation, Pompeo told reporters in Washington.
It was also based on a recent series of incidents in the region that the U.S. also blames on Iran, including a similar attack on tankers in the area in May and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters, he said.
“Taken as a whole these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo said.
Hours after Pompeo’s assertion, the U.S. military released a video it said shows Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous.
The black-and-white footage, as well as still photographs released by the U.S. military’s Central Command on Friday, appeared to show the mine on the tanker.
A Revolutionary Guard patrol boat pulled alongside the ship and removed the mine, Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said.
“The U.S. and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation,” Urban said. “The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests.”
In Tokyo, the owner of the Kokuka Courageous said Friday its sailors saw “flying objects” before the attack, suggesting it wasn’t damaged by mines. Company president Yutaka Katada offered no evidence for his claim, which contradicts the U.S. military account.
Katada also said crew members saw an Iranian naval ship nearby, but he did not specify whether this was before or after the attacks.
All 21 Filipino crew members of the Panama-flagged ship escaped in life rafts and were rescued by a ship heading to the United Arab Emirates. On Friday, the crew members returned to the ship and are working to use the reserve power system, he said, adding that the vessel is in no danger of sinking.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the attacks, warning that the world cannot afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region.”
Iran’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations brushed aside U.S. claims that Tehran is responsible for attacks.
“Strongly we are rejecting any accusation of Iran,” Eshagh Al Habib told a small group of reporters shortly after Pompeo blamed Tehran for the attacks.
“Definitely, those that accuse Iran have the main role in creating those incidents and it could be the United States itself,” Habib said.
Apparently with Israel and Saudi Arabia in mind, the Iranian envoy also said there are two specific nations that “are looking for more tensions” in the Persian Gulf region and that the United States is a staunch backer of them.
The attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, a key corridor through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes, caused global oil prices to surge.
Despite the surge, industry minister Hiroshige Seko on Friday told reporters in Tokyo that the incident will not immediately affect Japan’s stable energy supply. The government will continue to closely watch the situation, the oil prices, as well as the effect on the Japanese economy, he added.
He declined to comment on Pompeo’s assertion that Iran was behind the attack.
Japan will host the Group of 20 ministerial meeting on energy and environment in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, this weekend. Seko said the ministers would share common concern.
“There have been several incidents recently in the Middle East area, one of the most vital regions in energy security, that raise concern,” he said. “We would like to deepen discussions among ministers (at this weekend’s meeting) about how to deal globally with various challenges and threats to the world’s energy security.”
The Kokuka Courageous was carrying 25,000 tons of methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore when it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, near the Fujairah port of the United Arab Emirates, according to Kokuka Sangyo, the operator of the ship.
The other ship, the Marshall Islands-listed Front Altair, was chartered by Taiwanese oil refiner CPC Corp. to carry 75,000 tons of naphtha from the UAE to southern Taiwan, company Vice President Chen Ming-hui said.
Chen said the vessel was “engulfed in flames” but all 23 crew members were safe.