The Trump administration intensified its effort Friday to demonstrate Iran's culpability in a spate of damaging oil tanker attacks, as dueling accusations from Washington and Tehran heightened concerns about military conflict.
American officials said newly released intelligence, including a grainy video, illustrated Tehran's role in twin explosions Thursday that crippled Japanese- and Norwegian-owned ships in the Gulf of Oman.
But European nations appealed to all sides to deescalate, as statements by the owner of one of the targeted ships appeared to challenge the U.S. account that Iranian naval boats had employed limpet mines.
President Donald Trump insisted that video released by U.S. Central Command that appeared to show unidentified people in a small boat removing something from the side of a tanker – which officials said was an unexploded mine – was proof that Iran had carried out the attacks.
“Well, Iran did do it,” he told Fox News. “And you know they did it because you saw the boat.”
Depicting Iran as a “nation of terror,” the president's remarks underscored the urgency that has characterized his administration's approach to a country it has identified as its primary adversary in the Middle East.
U.S. officials say Thursday's attacks, like a similar incident off the United Arab Emirates in May, was part of an attempt by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to hobble energy commerce as the United States moves to shut off Tehran's ability to sell oil on international markets.
Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the United States “immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran – (without) a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence,” accusing the Trump White House of “economic terrorism” and “sabotage diplomacy.”
The escalating rhetoric on both sides has alarmed allied nations and generated concerns among Democratic lawmakers who fear that the administration could allow a conflict to erupt.
Military officials have scrambled to reinforce a presence in the Middle East, which they had reduced in an attempt to refocus on China and Russia, while also voicing concern about the potential for conflict with a well-armed and unpredictable rival.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that the impetus behind the attacks on the Japanese ship Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian Front Altair was the administration's “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions, which is intended to get Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and its support of militia groups in the region.
“This is a way station to a wider conflict breaking out between Iran and the United States,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst and Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “If Iran was behind it, it is very clear the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration is rendering Iran more aggressive, not less.”
Yutaka Katada, president of the Kokuka Sangyo shipping firm that owns one of the targeted tankers, told reporters Friday in Tokyo: “The crew are saying it was hit with a flying object. They say something came flying toward them, then there was an explosion, then there was a hole in the vessel. Then some crew witnessed a second shot.”
Katada added: “To put a bomb on the side is not something we are thinking. If it's between an explosion and a penetrating bullet, I have a feeling it is a penetrating bullet. If it was an explosion, there would be damage in different places, but this is just an assumption or a guess.”
The Courageous was targeted as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran.
“When the shell hit, it was above the water surface by quite a lot,” Katada said. “Because of that, there is no doubt that it wasn't a torpedo.”
He said the ship's crew saw an Iranian military ship in the vicinity Thursday night Japan time, Reuters news agency reported.
Following the attacks, the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer that was in the area, took on board 21 crew members from the ship. According to U.S. officials, the crew of the Front Altair boarded Iranian naval vessels after initially being rescued by another ship.
“We showed that we were able to rescue the sailors of the ship as soon as possible,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi. The accusation against Iran, he said, is “not only not funny ... but alarming and worrisome.”