Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday night accused Iran of carrying out twin attacks on oil tankers in a vital Gulf shipping channel, and said he “won’t hesitate” to tackle threats to the kingdom, in his first comment amid ongoing tensions with rival Iran following attacks on oil tankers in a vital Gulf shipping channel.
“We do not want a war in the region… But we won’t hesitate to deal with any threat to our people, our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our vital interests,” Prince Mohammed said in excerpts published early Sunday of an interview to pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.
“The Iranian regime did not respect the presence of the Japanese prime minister as a guest in Tehran and responded to his [diplomatic] efforts by attacking two tankers, one of which was Japanese,” he said.
The prince also accused “Iran and its proxies” over May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored in the Gulf of Oman off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah.
The attacks on Thursday on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman sent crude prices soaring amid a tense standoff between Iran and the US.
The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was carrying highly flammable methanol through the Gulf of Oman when it was rocked by explosions, causing a blaze that was quickly extinguished.
US President Donald Trump said the twin attack, which also targeted a tanker owned by Oslo-listed company Frontline, had Iran “written all over it.”
The US military on Friday released a video it said shows Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the oil tankers targeted near the Strait of Hormuz, suggesting the Islamic republic sought to remove evidence of its involvement from the scene.
Tehran has vehemently denied any involvement.
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, is a bitter regional rival of Iran.
Iran has repeatedly warned in the past that it could block the strategic Hormuz Strait in a relatively low-tech, high-impact countermeasure to any attack by the United States.
Doing so would disrupt oil tankers travelling out of the Gulf region to the Indian Ocean and global export routes.
Israeli TV reported Saturday night that Israeli intelligence has concluded Iran carried out Thursday’s attacks. Quoting a senior Israeli official involved in Iran-related issues, Channel 13 news reported that the IRGC carried out the attacks. They used mines and a torpedo, the report said.
The Israeli conclusion mirrors that of the US and the UK.
“Our own assessment leads us to conclude that responsibility for the attacks almost certainly lies with Iran. These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilizing Iranian behavior and pose a serious danger to the region,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Friday
Iran denies being involved, accusing the US instead of waging an “Iranophobic campaign” against it. Tehran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday accused the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia of a plot to “sabotage diplomacy,” and appeared to insinuate that those countries were behind the assaults.
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.
Tehran previously used mines against oil tankers in 1987 and 1988 in the “Tanker War,” when the US Navy escorted ships through the region.
The US 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.
Thursday’s attack resembled that of an attack in May targeting four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah. US officials similarly accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, which are magnetic and attach to the hulls of a ship. The mines disable, but don’t sink, a vessel.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists on Thursday that the US 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, which the US also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines in the Fujairah attack, he said. He also tied Iran to a drone attack by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline around the same time.
“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 didn’t elaborate and took no questions.
Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that President Donald Trump repudiated last year. In the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. Now, Iran is threatening to resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels if European nations don’t offer it new terms to the deal by July 7.
Already, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, US sanctions have cut off opportunities for Iran to trade its excess uranium and heavy water abroad, putting Tehran on course to violate terms of the nuclear deal regardless.
AP contributed to this report.