DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were damaged in suspected attacks on Thursday, leaving one ablaze and the other adrift and forcing sailors to evacuate in the latest mysterious incident involving tankers amid heightened tensions between the U.S and Iran.
The U.S. Navy, which rushed in to assist the stricken vessels, and the ship's owners offered no immediate explanation on what weapon caused the damage to the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, though all believed the ships had been targeted in an attack. The Front Altair burned for hours afterward, charring half of one of the vessel's sides and sending thick black smoke into the sky.
Last month, the U.S. alleged that Iran used limpet mines to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah. Iran denied being involved, but the incidents came as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen also have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, including on oil infrastructure.
Meanwhile in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that while Tehran doesn't seek nuclear weapons, "America could not do anything" to stop Iran if it did.
The comments came during a one-on-one meeting capping Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's high-stakes visit in Tehran that sought to ease Iran-U.S. tensions, suggested the efforts had failed.
Benchmark Brent crude spiked at one point by as much 4% in trading following the suspected attack, to over $62 a barrel, highlighting how crucial the area remains to global energy supplies. A third of all oil traded by sea passes through the strait, which is the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.
Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said the U.S. Navy was assisting the two vessels that he described as being hit in a "reported attack." He did not say how the ships were attacked or who was suspected of being behind the assault. The American destroyer USS Bainbridge was sent to assist, he said.
The MT Front Altair, a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker, immediately caught fire after the suspected attack.
The firm that operates the Front Altair told The Associated Press that an explosion was the cause of the fire onboard. Its crew of 23 is safe after being evacuated by the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel, it said.
BSM Ship Management said the Kokuka Courageous sustained hull damage and 21 sailors had been evacuated, with one suffering minor injuries.
Iranian state television said 44 sailors from the two tankers have been transferred to an Iranian port in the southern province of Hormozgan.
The Front Altair came from Ruwais in the UAE, a loading point for the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., according to the data firm Refinitiv. It carried naphtha, a flammable hydrocarbon. The Kokuka Courageous, came from Mesaieed, Qatar, and Jubail, Saudi Arabia, carrying methanol, a chemical compound used in a variety of products, Refinitiv said.
The fact that both vessels remained afloat suggested mines may have damaged them, said Jakob P. Larsen, head of maritime security for BIMCO, the largest international association representing ship owners.
"Judging from the damage, it doesn't look like a torpedo, it looks like something smaller, whether that is a vessel-borne improvised explosive device or even a limpet mine," he told the AP.
He added: "The shipping industry views this as an escalation of the situation, and we are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high."
The timing of Thursday's suspected attack was especially sensitive as Abe's high-stakes diplomacy mission was underway in Iran. Japan's Trade Ministry said the two vessels had "Japan-related cargo," without elaborating.
On Wednesday, after talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Abe warned that any "accidental conflict" that could be sparked amid the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions must be avoided.
His message came just hours after Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi airport, striking its arrivals hall before dawn and wounding 26 people Wednesday. A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting for over four years against the Houthis, whom United Nations experts and the West say receive arms from Iran. Tehran denies that.
A statement published by Khamenei's website after Abe's meeting Thursday with the supreme leader suggested a tense exchange between the two.
"We have no doubt about your good will and seriousness, but ... I don't regard (President Donald) Trump as deserving any exchange of messages," Khamenei reportedly told Abe.
Khamenei also said Iran remained opposed to building atomic weapons, but offered a challenge to Trump.
"You should know that if we planned to produce nuclear weapons, America could not do anything," said Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran's Shiite theocracy.
Tensions have escalated in the Mideast as Iran appears poised to break the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that the Trump administration pulled out of last year.
Iran's nuclear deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
In withdrawing from the deal last year, Trump pointed to the accord not limiting Iran's ballistic missile program and not addressing what American officials describe as Tehran's malign influence across the wider Middle East. Those who struck the deal at the time described it as a building block toward further negotiations with Iran, whose Islamic government has had a tense relationship with America since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.
Already, Iran says it quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, David Rising in Berlin, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
Key events raising tensions in the Persian Gulf
Associated Press – Tensions between the United States and Iran have soared in recent weeks, with Washington dispatching warships and bombers around the Persian Gulf, and Tehran threatening to resume higher uranium enrichment. The tensions come a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran's 2015 nuclear accord with world powers and restored crippling sanctions.
A timeline of recent events:
May 5: John Bolton, the White House national security adviser and a longtime Iran hawk, announces the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force in response to "a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings," without providing details. He threatens "unrelenting force" in response to any attack.
May 8: Iran vows to enrich its uranium stockpile closer to weapons-grade levels starting July 7 if world powers fail to negotiate new terms for its nuclear deal. The U.S. responds by imposing sanctions on Iran's metals industry.
May 9: The European Union urges Iran to respect the nuclear deal and says it plans to continue trading with the country despite U.S. sanctions. Trump says he would like Iran's leaders to "call me."
May 10: The U.S. says it will move a Patriot missile battery into the Middle East to counter threats from Iran.
May 12: The United Arab Emirates says four commercial ships off its eastern coast "were subjected to sabotage operations," just hours after Iranian and Lebanese media outlets air false reports of explosions at a nearby Emirati port.
May 13: European foreign ministers urge the United States and Iran to show restraint, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs his counterparts on the alleged threats from Iran. Trump warns that if Tehran does "anything" in the form of an attack "they will suffer greatly."
May 14: Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi rebels launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service.
– The New York Times reports the White House is reviewing military plans that could result in sending 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or steps up work on nuclear weapons. Trump says it's "fake news," but that he would "absolutely" be willing to send troops if necessary.
– Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says "no one is seeking war," but that it wouldn't be difficult for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.
– A senior military officer in the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group says "there's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria." In a rare public rebuttal, U.S. Central Command says his remarks "run counter to the identified credible threats."
May 15: The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad orders all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq immediately. The Netherlands and Germany say they are suspending their training of Iraqi forces.
May 16: Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the drone attack on its pipeline and an English-language newspaper close to the palace calls for the U.S. to launch "surgical" strikes in retaliation.
– President Donald Trump says he hopes the U.S. is not on a path to war with Iran amid fears that his two most hawkish advisers could be angling for a conflict with the Islamic Republic. Asked if the U.S. was going to war with Iran, the president replied, "I hope not" — a day after he repeated a desire for dialogue, tweeting, "I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."
May 19: A rocket lands near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, without harming anyone. It's not clear who is behind the attack, but after the initial reports, Trump tweets: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!" Iran's foreign minister responded by tweeting that Trump had been "goaded" into "genocidal taunts."
May 20: Semi-official media in Iran report that it has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium, which is used for civilian applications but not nuclear weapons. Iran is allowed to enrich uranium to the low level of 3.67%, but increased production could lead it to exceed the stockpile limits in the nuclear deal.
May 24: President Donald Trump says the U.S. will bolster its military presence in the Middle East with an additional 1,500 troops. He says the troops will have a "mostly protective" role.
– Senior Pentagon officer Vice Admiral Michael Gilday says the U.S. has a high degree of confidence that Iran's Revolutionary Guard was responsible for the explosions of the four tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and that Iranian proxies in Iraq fired rockets into Baghdad.
May 31 and June 1: Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosts three high-level summits in Mecca, drawing heads of state from across the Middle East and Muslim countries to present a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran. The monarch calls on the international community to use all means to confront Iran and accuses the Shiite power of being behind "terrorist operations" that targeted Saudi oil interests.
June 12: Saudi Arabia says 26 people were wounded in an attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting an airport in kingdom's southwestern town of Abha. The Houthis claim they'd launched a cruise missile at the airport.
June 13: Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked in an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as 44 sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the U.S. Navy rushed to assist.