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Trump accuses Iran of tanker attacks but flags need for talks

Picture obtained by AFP from Iranian News Agency ISNA reportedly shows fire and smoke billowing from Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker.

The US military on Friday released a video it said shows Iran's Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded mine from one of the oil tankers targeted in the Gulf of Oman. Tehran denied involvement, accusing the US of waging an "Iranophobic campaign".

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"It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters.

Appearing on Fox News television later on Friday, President Donald Trump claimed Iran's responsibility for the attacks had been "exposed" by the United States."Iran did do it," he added, describing the Islamic Republic as “a nation of terror”.

He did not say what he intended to do about it but suggested "very tough" US sanctions, including efforts to strangle Iranian oil revenues, would have the desired effect. However, he also held out hope that implicit US threats to use force will yield talks with Iran.

"They've been told in very strong terms we want to get them back to the table," Trump said. Just a day earlier, the president took the opposite view, tweeting that it was "too soon to even think about making a deal" with Iran's leaders. "They are not ready, and neither are we!"

The US Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze Thursday by an explosion.

Footage released by US Navy

US accusations are ‘baseless’, says Iran

The Japanese ship operator of the Kokuka Courageous, one of the vessels attacked, said sailors on board the tanker saw "flying objects" just before the attack, suggesting the vessel wasn't damaged by mines. The crews of the Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were evacuated to Iran.

Iran has rejected the US accusation against it as “baseless”. In a tweet posted early Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the US of “immediately” jumping to make allegations against Tehran without “a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence”.

The attack made it "abundantly clear that the #B_Team is moving to a #PlanB: Sabotage diplomacy – including by @AbeShinzo – and cover up its #EconomicTerrorism against Iran".

Zarif regularly uses the term "B Team" to refer to US National Security Advisor John Bolton as well as Israel's prime minister, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are all pushing a hard line on Tehran. Thursday's attack occured while Japanse Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Iran seeking to defuse tensions between Washington and the Islamic Republic.

The black-and-white footage, as well as still photographs released by the US military's Central Command on Friday, appeared to show the limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous.

A Revolutionary Guard patrol boat pulled alongside the ship and removed the mine, Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said.

"The US and the international community stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation," Urban said. "The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests."

For his part, the Saudi Arabian energy minister reacted more forthrightly on Saturday: "There must be a swift and decisive response to the threat against energy supplies... created by the recent terrorist acts in the Arabian Gulf," Khalid al-Falih was quoted as saying on the ministry's Twitter page.

No evidence of ‘flying object’ claim

Meanwhile in Tokyo, the owner of the Kokuka Courageous, Yutaka Katada, offered no evidence for his claim that sailors on board the vessel saw "flying objects" before the attack.

Katada also said crew members saw an Iranian naval ship nearby, but did not specify whether this was before or after the attacks.

The suspected attacks occurred at dawn Thursday about 40 kilometres (25 miles) off the southern coast of Iran. The Front Altair, loaded with the flammable hydrocarbon mixture naphtha from the United Arab Emirates, radioed for help as it caught fire. A short time later, the Kokuka Courageous, loaded with methanol from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called for help.

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.

‘A clear threat to international peace’

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.

Pompeo noted that Japanese Prime Minister Abe had asked Iran to enter into talks with Washington but Tehran "rejected" the overture.

"The supreme leader's government then insulted Japan by attacking a Japanese-owned oil tanker just outside Iranian waters, threatening the lives of the entire crew, creating a maritime emergency," Pompeo added.

“The video footage that was released was not conclusive,” said FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Leela Jacinto on The World This Week programme. In light of “the facts that this situation has become so tense and none of the parties are really credible, what is really needed for a whodunit is an independent investigation”.

“US intelligence, especially after what happened in the Iraq War, just does not have that credibility,” Jacinto continued.

UN meeting results in no action

At the United Nations, the Security Council held closed consultations on the tanker incidents late Thursday at the request of the United States but took no action.

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.

Saudi Arabia said early Friday its military had intercepted five drones launched by Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting the kingdom, including the Abha regional airport. The kingdom said a similar attack Wednesday on the Abha airport wounded 26 people.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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