US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran on Thursday for attacks on a pair of tankers earlier in the day in the Gulf of Oman.
“This is only the latest in a series of attacks instigated by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogates against American and allied interests,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
“On April 22, Iran promised the world it would interrupt the flow of the oil through the Strait of Hormuz. It is now working to execute on that promise,” he added, referring to the narrow waterway separating the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Iran.
Earlier, an unnamed US defense official told CBS News that it was “highly likely Iran caused these attacks” on the ships, one of of which was Japanese and the other Norwegian.
The official also said Iran’s claim that it rescued the crewmen after one of the burning ships was abandoned is “patently false.” A spokesman for the US Central Command said the 21 crew members from the oil tanker Kokuka Courageous were on board the US Navy ship USS Bainbridge.
The Thursday morning attack was the second incident in the Gulf of Oman in a month and came amid spiraling tensions between Tehran and Washington, which has pointed the finger at Iran over earlier tanker attacks in May.
A US defense official told CNN that sailors aboard a US naval destroyer spotted an unexploded mine on one of two tankers.
Limpet mines, which are attached to ships using magnets, are also suspected of having been used in the attack last month on four oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates.
The US official said more navy vessels are expected to sail to the area where Thursday’s incident took place, to provide security, conduct patrols, help sailors return to port and tow the damaged tankers back to port if need be.
Meanwhile, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warned that the world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf, as the Security Council prepared to meet to discuss the suspected attacks on the two ships in the strategic sea lane, which carries much of the world’s oil supply.
The head of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, urged the council to take action, saying that “some parties in our region are trying to instigate fires in our region and we must be aware of that,” a veiled reference to Iran.
Gheit called on the international community “to send an unequivocal and unambiguous message to our neighbors that subversive activities are no longer acceptable,” including “concealing themselves behind regional proxies or gray zone operation that are non-attributable to their original perpetrators.”
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Guterres condemned the attack against civilian vessels, but cautioned: “Facts must be established and responsibilities clarified.”
“If there is something the world cannot afford, it is a major confrontation in the Gulf region,” the UN Secretary-General said at Thursday’s council meeting on cooperation between the UN and the Arab League
At the meeting, US acting Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen said it was “unacceptable for any party to attack commercial shipping.”
Though he stopped short of blaming Iran, he told the council that the Islamic Republic “remains the most significant threat to regional peace and security, engaged in numerous malign activities in the region.”
On May 12, four oil tankers — two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati — were damaged in still unexplained attacks in the Gulf of Oman off the United Arab Emirates.
Last week, the UAE said initial findings of its investigation pointed to the likelihood that a “state actor” was behind the bombings, but did not specifically blame Iran.
Preliminary findings showed it was “highly likely” that four Limpet mines, which are magnetically attached to a ship’s hull, were used in the attacks, placed by trained divers who were deployed from fast boats.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said “there’s no doubt” that Iran was responsible for last month’s attacks on the tankers.
Global oil prices surged by four percent immediately after reports of the attacks.