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)

Iranian lawmaker blames ‘Israeli mischief’ for tanker attacks off UAE coast

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

GENEVA (Reuters) – The tanker attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were “Israeli mischief,” an Iranian parliamentary spokesman said on Tuesday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“The events that took place in the Emirates were Israeli mischief,” Behrouz Nemati said, without providing any details on what role Israel may have played in the attacks.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Louise Heavens)

Saudi Arabia says its oil tankers among those hit by attack off UAE coast

General view of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Rania El Gamal and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

The UAE had not given the nationalities or other details about the ownership of the four vessels. Riyadh has identified two of them as Saudi and a Norwegian company said it owned another. Reuters images showed the fourth vessel was the UAE-flagged A. Michel, a fuel bunker barge.

Thome Ship Management said its Norwegian-registered oil products tanker MT Andrew Victory was “struck by an unknown object”. Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards.

A Reuters witness said divers were inspecting the damaged ships on Monday.

Iran, which is embroiled in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the U.S. military’s presence in the region, moved to distance itself on Monday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said, “saboteurs from a third country” could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Highlighting international concerns, Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risks of “a conflict happening by accident” with an unintended escalation between Washington and Tehran over an unraveling nuclear deal.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 pact between Iran and global powers aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear plans. Since then, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to reduce its oil exports to zero.

UAE LAUNCHES PROBE

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to major markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

Oil prices rose on Monday, with Brent crude futures at $72.08 a barrel by 1416 GMT, up $2.07.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that one of the two Saudi vessels was attacked in the UAE economic zone on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude from Ras Tanura port for delivery to state-owned Aramco’s customers in the United States.

The attack did not cause any casualties or an oil spill but caused significant damage to the vessels’ structures, he said in a statement.

Trading and shipping sources identified the Saudi vessels as very large crude carrier (VLCC) tanker Amjad and crude tanker Al Marzoqah, both owned by Saudi shipping firm Bahri, which did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The UAE Foreign Ministry had said there were no casualties and the Fujairah port operations were normal. An investigation was launched in coordination with international authorities, it said, calling on global powers to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime safety and security.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi stock markets suffered their biggest single-day declines in years on Monday, with Dubai falling 3.97%. Saudi shares lost 3.55%.

OIL SECURITY

Sunni Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed U.S. sanctions against Shi’ite Iran, a fellow OPEC producer but regional foe. After the United States ended all sanctions waivers that had allowed some nations to continue importing Iranian crude, Washington said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would help compensate for any shortage in oil supply.

Falih said the attack aimed to undermine maritime freedom and the security of oil supplies to consumers worldwide.

“The international community has a joint responsibility to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the incident “has a negative impact on maritime transportation security” and asked regional countries to be “vigilant against destabilizing plots of foreign agents”, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said in an advisory on Sunday that incidents off Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, had not been confirmed and urged caution.

The Maritime Administration had said earlier this month that U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways could be targeted by Iran in one of the threats to U.S. interests posed by Tehran.

Washington said it was sending a U.S. aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East due to what it said were Iranian threats, while Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Iran has said it would not allow its oil exports to be halted.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Robin Emmott in London, Saeed Azhar in Dubai and Oslo newsroom; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)