Japanese tanker owner disputes US account of tanker attacks
Iran dismissed as "baseless" on Friday US accusations it executed twin attacks that left two tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, warning Washington to stop playing a blame game.
"The suspicious nature of incidents for oil tankers is not a joke. It is not only not funny, but it is also worrying and alarming," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday blamed Iran for the attack on the two commercial tanker ships.
“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,” Pompeo said.
He said the assessment was based on intelligence, the weapons used, expertise required and similar recent attacks.
Pompeo warned Washington would defend its regional interests after US Central Command accused Iranian forces of launching the attacks – the second in a month in the strategic shipping lane.
CENTCOM released grainy black-and-white video it said showed crew members of an Iranian patrol boat removing an "unexploded limpet mine" from the hull of the Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous.
The Japanese owner of the Kokuka Courageous, one of two oil tankers targeted near the Strait of Hormuz, said Friday that sailors on board saw "flying objects" just before it was hit, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines.
That account contradicts what the US military said as it released a video Friday it claimed shows Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the two ships that were hit.
The United States has also accused Iran over May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored in the Gulf of Oman off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah.
The preliminary findings of a five-nation investigation indicated the attacks needed sophisticated capabilities but stopped short of naming Iran.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Thursday that the US had "immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence".
He accused Washington of seeking to "sabotage diplomacy" as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran.
Tehran has said the United States and its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were “warmongering” by making accusations against Iran.
US video not enough
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Friday that the video provided by the United States is not sufficient to prove that Iran is behind the attacks on the oil tankers.
“The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me,” Maas told reporters during a visit to Oslo.
The two vessels, which were 10 nautical miles apart en route to Asia, were struck by explosions in the early daylight hours Thursday after passing through the Strait of Hormuz some 25 nautical miles off Iran's southern coast.
The Front Altair carrying naptha, a refined petroleum product, and owned by the Oslo-listed company Frontline was hit by three explosions, according to Norwegian officials, and remained ablaze into Thursday.
Explosions also struck the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, which was loaded with methanol, but the fire on board was soon extinguished.
There was no claim of responsibility for the blasts, which struck both tankers at the waterline.
The Japanese owner of the Kokuka Courageous said Friday that sailors on board saw "flying objects" just before it was hit, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines.
Company president Yutaka Katada said Friday he believes the flying objects seen by the sailors could have been bullets. He denied any possibility of mines or torpedoes because the damage was above the ship's waterline. He called reports of a mine attack "false."
The Japanese tanker was attacked twice Thursday, damaging the vessel and forcing all 21 crew members to evacuate.
The tanker survived the first attack, which hit near the engine room and was followed by another, damaging the starboard side toward the back.
A source has said a magnetic mine could have caused the explosion on Front Altair, which had a cargo of naphtha. Its owner said on Friday the fire erupted was put out. The blaze that sent smoke towering into the air charred the ship’s hull.
Iran said its navy rescued several dozen crew members from the two vessels, while the US Navy said it had picked up 21 from the Kokuka Courageous.
Iranian-US tensions began ratcheting up after US President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal last year between Iran and global powers that aimed to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
Since then Washington has toughened its sanctions regime, seeking to force Iran’s oil customers to slash their imports. Iran’s crude exports fell to about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in May from 2.5 million bpd in April 2018, draining Tehran’s main source of revenues and hurting its economy.
With tensions spiraling between Iran and the United States, the European Union called for "maximum restraint" and UN chief Antonio Guterres warned against a Persian Gulf confrontation.
China called for all sides to "resolve the conflict through dialogue" as oil prices jumped.
Oil prices jumped at the threat of open conflict around the Strait of Hormuz, the chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, through which some 15 million barrels of crude pass daily.
They were mixed on Friday after the previous day's surge, with benchmark Brent crude slightly up while US standard, West Texas Intermediate WTI dipped slightly.
AFP, AP and Reuters contributed to this report.