US Officials Suspect Iran Is Behind Tanker Attacks Near Gulf

Patrick Goodenough | May 14, 2019 | 4:38am EDT
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A hole at the waterline is visible in the hull of the the Norwegian-flagged oil tanker Andrea Victory, off the coast of the UAE. (Screen capture: WAM)

( – Early investigations into Sunday’s attacks on four tankers near the Persian Gulf suggest that explosives were used to hole the vessels, and unnamed U.S. officials have told wire services that Iran or Iranian proxies are suspected to be responsible.

Footage of one of the vessels – the Norwegian-flagged oil tanker Andrea Victory – released by the United Arab Emirates’ WAM news agency, show a gaping hole in the stern hull, along the waterline.

The other three ships targeted were two Saudi tankers, the Amjad and Al Marzoqah, and a UAE-flagged vessel, the A. Michel.

UAE authorities have so far spoken only of acts of “sabotage” on the four ships near the port of Fujairah, about 80 nautical miles south of the Strait of Hormuz, but the Associated Press, citing an anonymous U.S. official, reported that a U.S. “military team’s initial assessment is that Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies used explosives” to damage the ships.

A U.S. official also told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that Iran was a leading candidate for the perpetrator, but that the U.S. does not have conclusive proof of its involvement.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters in Brussels that the Department of Defense at the UAE’s request was “aiding the investigation.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday amended his travel itinerary, for the third time in a week, for reasons related to reported threats from Iran. Canceling one of two scheduled stops in Russia, he flew to Brussels instead to discuss with NATO allies “the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran,” U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook, said in the Belgian capital.

Hook confirmed that the Fujairah ship attacks had featured in the talks, but asked whether he believes Iran may have played a role he declined to comment.

Speaking of Iranian threats in general, Hook said the U.S. would hold the regime responsible for any attacks its proxies may carry out.

“We have put in place an entirely new foreign policy with respect to the Iranian regime,” he said. “Iran’s era of deniable attacks is over. Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies. They cannot organize, train, and equip their proxies and then expect anyone to believe that they had no role. And so we will not make a distinction between the Iranian Government and its proxies.”

Most prominent among Iran’s “proxies” are Hezbollah in Lebanon, several Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and the Shi’ite Houthi militia in Yemen. All have been linked to terror attacks aimed at the U.S. and its allies for decades – from Hezbollah’s suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, to Iraqi militias’ deadly IED attacks on U.S. soldiers, to Houthi missile attacks targeting Saudi Arabia.

‘Adventurism by foreign elements’

As Iran’s rivals in the Arab world lined up to express support for the UAE, the foreign ministry in Tehran implicitly denied involvement, called the incident “alarming and regrettable.”

Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi warned against “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security,” and called for regional states to be vigilant “in the face of any adventurism by foreign elements.”

A B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber takes off from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar on May 12, on the first mission of the Bomber Task Force deployed to defend American forces and interests in the region. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Nichelle Anderson)

Asked at the White House about the attacks on the oil tankers, President Trump said, “We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that. They’re not going to be happy.”

Asked what he meant by that, Trump replied, “You can figure it out yourself. They know what I mean by it.”

WAM reported Monday that Fujairah port was operating as normal, and that no oil spills had occurred as a result of the damage to the ships off the coast.

The Andrea Victory is a 184 meter-long, 47,210-ton tanker, the Saudi-flagged Al Marzoqah, is a 105,084-ton, 243 meter-long tanker, and the UAE-flagged A. Michel is a smaller bunkering tanker, 6,711 tons and 108 meters long.

All are dwarfed by the other Saudi-owned vessel targeted in the incident, Amjad, a 298,886-ton very large crude carrier (VLCC). At 330 meters in length, the two-year-old supertanker is roughly as long as the USS Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy carrier now approaching the region.

Saudi energy minister Khalid Al-Falih said damage to the two Saudi ships was “significant.”

UAE foreign minister Anwar Gargash said on Twitter professional investigations were underway into the acts of “deliberate sabotage” and that the UAE would determine its own “readings and evaluations.”

Air Forces Central Command posted photos Monday of B-52 strategic bombers – deployed to Qatar last week as announced earlier by National Security Advisor John Bolton – beginning to carry out missions in the region aimed at defending U.S. forces and interests.

Meanwhile the head of the IRGC Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace division, Amirali Hajizadeh, was quoted by Iranian media outlets as saying that a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Gulf was an opportunity, rather than a threat.

“An aircraft carrier that has at least 40 to 50 planes on it and 6,000 forces gathered within it was a serious threat for us in the past, but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities,” he said.

“The Americans in the region are like a piece of meat under our teeth,” Hajizadeh said. “We will hit them in the head if they move.”

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