Tankers struck near Strait of Hormuz; US blames Iran
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Two oil tankers came under a suspected attack Thursday near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, with one of them set ablaze, and the U.S. blamed Iran in what it called a campaign of "escalating tensions" in a region crucial to global energy supplies.
The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran. The ships' operators offered no immediate explanation on who or what caused the damage against the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous. Each was loaded with petroleum products, and the Front Altair burned for hours, sending up a column of thick, black smoke.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. assessment of Iran's involvement was based in part on intelligence as well as the expertise needed for the operation. It was also based on recent incidents in the region that the U.S. also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters in May, 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. He provided no evidence, gave no specifics about any plans and took no questions.
At the United Nations, the United States asked for closed Security Council consultations on the tanker incidents later Thursday.
Iran denied being involved in the attacks last month and its foreign minister called the timing of Thursday's incidents suspicious, given that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.
Pompeo noted that Abe had asked Iran to enter into talks with Washington but Tehran "rejected" the overture.
"The supreme leader's government then insulted Japan by attacking a Japanese-owned oil tanker just outside Iranian waters, threatening the lives of the entire crew, creating a maritime emergency," Pompeo added.
Iran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the "Tanker War," which saw the U.S. Navy escort ships through the region. Regardless of who is responsible, the price of a barrel of benchmark Brent crude spiked as much as 4% immediately after the attack, showing how critical the region remains to the global economy.
"The shipping industry views this as an escalation of the situation, and we are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high," said Jakob P. Larsen, head of maritime security for BIMCO, the largest international association representing ship owners.
The suspected attacks occurred at dawn Thursday about 40 kilometers (25 miles) off the southern coast of Iran. The Front Altair, loaded with naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire. A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called for help.
The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, to assist, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman. He described the ships as being hit in a "reported attack," without elaborating.
Frontline, the firm that operates the Front Altair, told The Associated Press that an explosion was the cause of the fire. Its crew of 23 — from Russia, the Philippines and Georgia — was safely evacuated to the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel, it said.