US President Donald Trump‘s administration is focused on building international consensus following attacks on two oil tankers in the Middle East that the US has blamed on Iran, acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said on Friday.
Shanahan told Pentagon reporters that he, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared that goal.
Iran has denounced as “ridiculous” and “dangerous” US allegations that Tehran was behind the attacks near the Strait of Hormuz.
The two vessels – the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair – were damaged on Thursday morning as they were leaving the Gulf of Oman, the second such incident in four weeks that sent Brent crude prices up and heightened tensions in the region.
Shanahan, asked later whether he was considering sending more US troops or military capabilities to the Middle East, said: “As you know we’re always planning various contingencies.”
But he then returned to the issue of building consensus.
“When you look at the situation, a Norwegian ship, a Japanese ship, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, 15 percent of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz,” he said.
“So we obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate. We also need to broaden our (international) support for this international situation,” he added.
Shanahan said the Pentagon’s role would include sharing intelligence, as the US military’s Central Command did on Thursday by publicly releasing a grainy video it claimed showed Iran’s military removing an unexploded mine from Kokuka Courageous, hours after the suspected attacks.
Iran said the video proved nothing and that Tehran was being made into a scapegoat.
“The more information that we can declassify, the more information we can share, we will. And that’s our intent,” Shanahan said.
The release of the black-and-white footage came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said US intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran was responsible for the attacks, without offering concrete evidence.
On Friday, in a TV interview on Fox News, Trump said, “Iran did do it”.
“You know they did it because you saw the boat,” Trump told the Fox and Friends show. “I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it.”
But Yutaka Katada, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, cast doubt on part of the US account, telling reporters on Friday that the vessel’s crew saw a “flying object” before a second blast on the boat.
Calling reports of a mine attack “false”, he said: “The crew was saying it was hit by a flying object … To put a bomb at the side of the boat is not something we are considering.”
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said the US had “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran without a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence”.
The allegation “only makes it abundantly clear” that the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were moving to a “Plan B”, Zarif said, which was to “sabotage diplomacy” as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran to defuse escalating US-Iran frictions.
Arab League caution
On Friday, the head of the Arab League called on the Iranians to “be careful and reverse course”.
Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit noted, after meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York, that there are conflicting reports about how Thursday’s tanker incidents occurred.
“We believe that responsibilities need to be clearly defined,” he said. “The facts will be revealed, I am sure, it’s only a matter of time.”
Aboul Gheit added “My call to my Iranian – and I call them Iranian brothers: Be careful and reverse course because you’re pushing everybody towards a confrontation that no one would be safe if it happens.”
The British government said it agreed with the US conclusion that Iran attacked the tankers.
The Foreign Office said in a statement that its own assessment concluded “it is almost certain that a branch of the Iranian military,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had attacked the tankers.
It said it also believed Iran was behind an attack last month on four tankers near the UAE port of Fujairah.
On May 12, days after Washington announced the military deployment, four oil tankers near the port were damaged in what the UAE called “sabotage attacks”. The US blamed Iran for the incidents, saying Iranian-made limpet mines were used in the attacks. Tehran also rejected these claims.
Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, called the latest US accusations “ridiculous, but also very worrying and dangerous”, according to the IRNA state news agency.
Blaming Iran for the incidents was “the simplest and the most convenient way” for US officials, he said, adding: “We are responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait and we have rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time.”
Justin Bronk, a combat technology specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, said the patrol boat shown in the US video was known to be the kind used by the IRGC.
However, “if the attack was the Iranians, this would be a very, very brazen thing to do, to go up and retrieve an unexploded mine [while] under scrutiny from the US destroyer that was nearby,” he said.
“On the other hand, you could argue that they were keen to pick up an unexploded mine to avoid it linking back to them. Although, realistically, if this was the Iranians, there will be enough evidence to link back to them even without the unexploded mine.”
The world’s largest international shipping association, BIMCO, urged all nations involved to defuse tensions and work through diplomatic efforts.
“We strongly call for nations to do what they can to de-escalate tensions and ensure the safe passage of merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz,” Angus Frew, BIMCO secretary-general and CEO, said in a statement.
“It is unacceptable that the lives of innocent seafarers are put at risk in these unprovoked attacks,” Frew added.
BIMCO represents about 60 percent of the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage.
Jakob Larsen, BIMCO’s head of maritime security said the attacks were an urgent concern to the industry.
“Following the two most recent attacks, and while we await the results of the investigations of the attacks, the tension in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is now as high as it gets without being an actual armed conflict,” Larsen added.
The Strait of Hormuz provides the only sea passage from the Gulf to the open ocean and is one of the world’s most important sea lanes. Disruption of shipping through the strait will have a major impact on the oil trade and the shipping industry.