WASHINGTON: The United States accused Iran of carrying out attacks that left two tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday (Jun 13), escalating tensions across the region and sending world oil prices soaring.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Washington will defend its forces and allies in the region, and the United States was to press its case as the UN Security Council met to address the incident - the second in a month in the strategic sea lane.
With tensions spiralling between Iran and the United States, the European Union called for "maximum restraint" as UN chief Antonio Guterres warned the world cannot afford a major confrontation in the Gulf.
Iran labelled the apparent attacks as "suspicious", as its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed overtures by visiting Japanese leader Shinzo Abe to open talks with US President Donald Trump.
But Pompeo said there was strong evidence of Iran's culpability, after the US Navy said it had spotted an unexploded magnetic limpet mine stuck to the hull of one of the vessels.
The US top diplomat said that in region only Iran had the ability to undertake such an operation.
"It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks," Pompeo announced.
"This is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication," he said.
Iran "categorically rejects the US unfounded claim with regard to 13 June oil tanker incidents and condemns it in the strongest possible terms", the Iranian mission to the United Nations said in a statement on Thursday evening.
It accused the United States and its regional allies, which include Iranian rival Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of "warmongering". Iran called on "the international community to live up to its responsibilities in preventing the reckless and dangerous policies and practices of the US and its regional allies in heightening the tensions in the region".
EXPLOSIONS OFF IRAN COAST
The two vessels were struck by explosions in the early daylight hours Thursday after leaving the Strait of Hormuz and travelling around 25 nautical miles off Iran's southern coast headed toward Asia.
The Norwegian-owned Front Altair ethanol tanker was hit by three explosions, according to the Norwegian Maritime Authority, and continued to burn late Thursday.
Explosions also struck the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, which was loaded down with methanol, but the fire on board was soon extinguished.
There was no claim of responsibility for the blasts, which struck both tankers at the waterline.
On Thursday night, US Central Command spokesman Bill Urban released a video of what the US military said was an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Gashti Class patrol boat approaching the Kokuka Courageous "and was observed and recorded removing (an) unexploded limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous".
Iran said its navy rescued several dozen crew members of the two vessels, while the US Navy said it had picked up 21 from the Kokuka Courageous.
"SERIES OF ATTACKS"
Pompeo called Thursday's tanker explosions "the latest in a series of attacks" he alleged were undertaken by Iran or its "proxies", including, he said, a missile attack against a southern Saudi Arabia airport by the Iran-aligned Huthis in Yemen on Wednesday.
"Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran," he said.
The United States has accused the Islamic republic over less damaging May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, just at the entrance of the Hormuz Strait.
Pompeo said Iran was lashing out because of the impact of US and international sanctions, but said it had no right "to attack innocent civilians and engage in nuclear blackmail".
"The United States will defend its forces, interests and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability," he warned.
Oil prices jumped at the threat of open conflict at the Hormuz chokepoint, through which transit some 15 million barrels of crude oil every day, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of imports for the Gulf countries.
Crude oil prices spiked more than 4 per cent after the attacks near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping artery for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf energy producers. Prices later settled about 2 per cent higher. Brent crude was down by 0.4 per cent at US$61.06 a barrel in early Asia trading.
"We are in a dangerous moment in the region with this emerging pattern of attacks," said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst with International Crisis Group.
"Any miscalculation or misunderstanding risks a spiral toward more direct confrontation," she told AFP.
ABE IN TEHRAN
The latest incident came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on an unprecedented visit to Tehran, seeking to defuse tensions.
"It is essential that Iran plays a constructive role in building solid peace and stability in the Middle East," Abe told a joint news conference with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani.
"Today, tension is rising in the Middle East. Some experts point out that the conflict might be triggered accidentally," he said.
Supreme Leader Khamenei rejected Abe's overture, saying: "We have no doubt in your goodwill and seriousness, but regarding what you said the US president told you, I don't consider Trump as a person worthy of exchanging messages with."
In Washington, Pompeo said the United States aimed to bring Iran back into negotiations - "at the right time" - over its nuclear programme and regional activities.
But Trump dismissed the idea of early talks.
"I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!" he tweeted.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
US and European security officials as well as regional analysts cautioned against jumping to conclusions about who carried out the attacks, leaving open the possibility that Iranian proxies, or someone else entirely, might have been responsible.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK was taking the matter "extremely seriously" and that if Iran was involved, "it is a deeply unwise escalation which poses a real danger to the prospects of peace and stability in the region".
UN Secretary-General Guterres told a meeting of the Security Council on cooperation between the United Nations and the League of Arab States that the world could not afford "a major confrontation in the Gulf region".
The Security Council discussed the attacks behind closed doors on Thursday at the request of the United States.
Kuwait’s UN ambassador, Mansour Al-Otaibi, president of the council for June, said after the meeting that all 15 council members had condemned the attacks.
When asked if the United States had shown any evidence to support its accusation that Iran was responsible, Al-Otaibi told reporters: "We didn’t discuss any evidence."
Tensions between Iran and the United States have risen since Trump pulled out of a deal last year between Iran and global powers that aimed to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iran has repeatedly warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot sell its oil because of US sanctions.
Tensions have increased further since Trump acted at the beginning of May to force Iran's oil customers to slash their imports to zero or face draconian US financial sanctions.
Iran's oil exports have dropped to around 400,000 barrels per day in May from 2.5 million bpd in April last year.
Also in May, the Trump administration said it would send more troops to the Middle East, citing what it saw as a threat of potential attack by Iran.