Trump blames Iran for tanker attacks, stoking fears of confrontation

Still image taken from a video appears to show two tankers at sea, one of which has a large plume of dark smoke in the Gulf of Oman. PRESS TV/IRIB/via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi and Makini Brice

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran on Friday for attacks on two oil tankers at the entrance to the Gulf despite Tehran’s denials, stoking fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping route.

Iran has dismissed earlier U.S. charges that it was behind Thursday’s attacks that crippled two tankers. It has previously suggested it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the main route out for Middle Eastern oil, if its own exports were halted.

Thursday’s blasts followed similar attacks a month earlier on four tankers, which Washington also blamed on Tehran.

They come at a time of escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran. Last month Washington sharply tightened sanctions against Tehran, which in response has threatened to step up its nuclear activity.

Asked how he planned to address Tehran and prevent any further incidents, Trump told Fox News: “We’re going to see.” He also said that any move to close the Strait of Hormuz would not last long.

Nevertheless, Trump, who last year pulled the United States out of an agreement between world powers and Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, said that he was open to negotiations with Iran.

“We want to get them back to the table,” Trump said. “I’m ready when they are.” He added that he was in “no rush”.

Iran has repeatedly said it will not re-enter talks with the United States unless it reverses Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

The U.S. military released a video on Thursday it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the blasts that struck the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, at the mouth of the Gulf.

Iran said the video proved nothing and that it was being made into a scapegoat.

“These accusations are alarming,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Iran has accused the United States and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of “warmongering” by making accusations against it.

Tehran and Washington have both said they have no interest in starting a war. But this has done little to assuage concerns that the two arch-foes could stumble into a conflict.

Oil prices surged on Thursday, reflecting the jitters, although they have since given up some of those gains.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday the world could not afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region”.

China, the European Union and others have called for restraint from all sides. In a notable signal that close U.S. allies are wary of Washington’s position, Germany said the U.S. video was not enough to apportion blame for Thursday’s attack.

The U.S. military said black-and-white footage it filmed from a U.S. aircraft showed Iran’s Guards on one of their patrol boats drawing up to the Kokuka Courageous and removing an unexploded limpet mine from its hull.

Britain said it took the matter “extremely seriously” and, if Iran was involved, “it is a deeply unwise escalation”.

The Japanese-owned tanker, abandoned by its crew, was being towed to a port in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, after a Dutch firm said it had been appointed to salvage the ships.

The second tanker, the Front Altair, which was set ablaze by a blast, was still languishing at sea, although the fire that had charred the hull had been put out.

“ALARMING”

Last month Washington revoked waivers that had allowed some countries to continue importing Iranian oil, effectively ordering all countries to blacklist Iran or face sanctions themselves.

Iran’s crude exports fell to about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in May from 2.5 million bpd in April 2018, starving Iran’s economy of its main source of revenues.

Iran says it is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some of the economic benefits that were promised. Last month it said it would boost enrichment of uranium, a move that could potentially lead to it building up a stockpile prohibited under the deal.

Washington has also blamed Iran or its proxies for attacks on May 12 that crippled four oil tankers in the same area, and has said Tehran was behind May 14 drone strikes on two Saudi oil-pumping stations. Tehran has denied all those charges.

There have been conflicting accounts of the cause of Thursday’s blasts. An initial report that Kokuka Courageous was struck by a torpedo was dismissed by a source familiar with the issue. The owner of the tanker, which carried methanol, later said it was hit by two “flying objects”.

A source has said a magnetic mine could have caused the explosion on Front Altair, which had a cargo of naphtha.

“UNWISE ESCALATION”

Iranian TV showed 23 crew in Iran believed to be from Front Altair on Friday, and said its experts would assess whether they could return to the ship. The crew from Kokuka Courageous were picked up and handed to a U.S. Navy ship on Thursday.

The Trump administration said in May it would send troops and other forces to the Middle East, citing Iranian threats, a move Tehran has called “psychological warfare”.

The administration argues that the nuclear deal, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too limited, and says re-imposing sanctions will force Tehran back to the table to make more concessions.

Most U.S. allies in Europe and Asia disagree and say pulling out of the deal was a mistake that will empower hardliners in Iran and hurt the pragmatic faction that promised Iranians economic benefits in return for opening up to the world.

Thursday’s attack took place while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan – a big buyer of Iranian oil until it was forced by the new U.S. sanctions to stop – was visiting Tehran on a peacemaking mission, bringing a message from Trump.

Iran dismissed Trump’s message, details of which were not made public. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafez, Maher Chmaytelli and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Victoria Klesty in Oslo; Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gareth Jones)

Turkey to U.S.: End support for Syrian Kurd YPG or risk confrontation

Turkish soldiers are pictured in a village near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 24, 2018.

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dahlia Nehme

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey urged the United States on Thursday to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara’s strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.

The remarks, from the spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, underscored the growing bilateral tensions, six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, “Olive Branch”, in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region.

In Washington, the Pentagon said that it carefully tracked weapons provided to the YPG and would continue discussions with Turkey.

“We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don’t fall into the wrong hands and we’re continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director, told reporters.

McKenzie said Turkey’s operation into Afrin was not helpful and was taking focus away from fighting Islamic State.

Turkey’s targeting of the YPG, which it views as a security threat, has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. The Syrian Kurdish group is a main part of a U.S.-backed rebel alliance that has inflicted recent defeats on Islamic State militants.

Any push by Turkish forces towards Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.

“Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.

“The United States needs to review its solders and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdag, who also acts as the government’s spokesman, told broadcaster A Haber.

The United States has around 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of an international, U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend its border with Turkey in Afrin despite Damascus’ stance against Kurdish autonomy.

“We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish jets in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run and does not recognize the autonomous cantons they have set up in northern Syria.

U.S. forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and U.S.-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said.

However Turkey has disputed that characterization of the conversation.

Turkey’s foreign minister said Erdogan told Trump that U.S. troops should withdraw from Manbij.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said she had seen media reports about the comments, but was not aware of any change in U.S. posture.

McKenzie added the United States and Turkey closely coordinated in the region but the United States would also ensure the safety of its troops.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

LIMITED GAINS

Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army rebel fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin.

They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support.

Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Dozens of combatants and more than two dozen civilians have been killed so far in the offensive, the Observatory has said.

The Turkish military said in a statement it had killed 303 militants in northern Syria since the operation started.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated umbrella group backed by the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has previously said that Turkey was exaggerating the number of the dead.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have neared breaking point recently over U.S. support for the YPG and other issues.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Washington sees the YPG as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey said the United States had proposed a 30 km (19 mile) “safe zone” along the border.

“(But) in order for us to discuss the security zone or any other issue with the U.S., we have to reestablish trust,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

In Washington, McKenzie said the U.S. and Turkey were continuing talks about a “secure zone” but there had been no final decision.

McKenzie said that he had not yet seen a movement of SDF fighters moving from the Euphrates River Valley to reinforce Afrin or Manbij, but was watching closely.

The Afrin operation has also triggered concern in Germany, another NATO ally, where the caretaker government said it would put on hold any decision on upgrading Turkey’s German-made tanks.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Tom Perry in Beirut; Michael Nienaber Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alistair Bell)