Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran on Thursday for an attack on two tankers carrying “Japan-related cargo” in the Gulf of Oman, just hours after investigation into the incident began.
Pompeo said Iran was directly responsible for the attack and it was not the fault of any of its proxies. He said this assessment was “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 sophistication.”
Pompeo said no amount of sanctions should allow Iran to “attack innocent civilians, disrupt oil markets and engage in nuclear blackmail. The international community condemns Iran’s assault.”
It’s unclear how torpedoing two tankers in broad daylight is a mark of “sophistication,” but the investigation into what happened has just started — the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy and has officials in the area, is conducting an ongoing investigation.
While Pompeo — who took no questions after the accusation on Thursday — seems certain of what happened, there are many unanswered questions about what happened in the early hours of the day.
What happened to the tankers?
The Front Altair (an oil tanker) and Kokuka Courageous (an oil and chemical tanker) were allegedly attacked on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, at a time when tensions between Iran and the United States are at an all-time high.
President Donald Trump has pulled the United States out the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions on Iran (which will only be lifted if Iran complies with a long list of demands, including basically changing its foreign policy), declared the country’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, and sent a U.S. carrier ship and bombers to the Persian Gulf.
The House Armed Services Committee is discussing the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2020, which has an amendment by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) prohibiting funds to be used to go to war with Iran unless the president goes to Congress first.
But in the wee hours on Thursday, two lawmakers, Rep, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, (D-MI) Pompeo has been making the case that the 2001 Authorization for the use of Military Force (AUMF) could be used to authorize a war against Iran.
The AUMF was passed to give President George W. Bush authority to go after those who perpetrated the September 11 attacks, but has been since interpreted to allow the U.S. president to go after anyone the United States sees as an adversary in its “war on terror,” allowing the U.S. to engage in military action around the world, from Eritrea to the Philippines, without a vote in Congress.
Citing a classified briefing, Gaetz said, “The notion that the administration has never maintained that there are elements of the 2001 AUMF that would authorize hostilities towards Iran is not consistent with my understanding of what they said.”
Slotkin said that Pompeo, while not saying that he wants a war with Iran, “referenced a relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda…there is to me, once he opened the door he asked for an answer.”
After the attack, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Twitter, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.” Pompeo later took the statement as an attempt at being “sardonic,” and listed attacks on the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that Iran was waging an “unacceptable campaign of escalating tension.”
Who has the most to gain by these attacks?
Iran just hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (who arrived in Tehran on Wednesday) and would appear to have little to gain by attacking a Japanese tanker. Relations between Tehran and Tokyo are friendly, as they have been for decades, with Japan largely operating in an apolitical space when dealing with Iran.
Abe was ostensibly there to run interference between Tehran and Washington, an idea Trump had supported during his May visit to Tokyo. Pompeo said that blowing up two tankers was Iran’s way of rejecting that offer.
“Iran’s supreme leader rejected Prime Minister Abe’s diplomacy today by saying he has no response to President Trump and will not answer,” said Pompeo, adding that Iran then chose to insult Japan with the tanker attacks.
Iran has always been clear that it will only consider meeting with the United States if the Trump administration lifts sanctions, treats it with respect, and returns to the nuclear deal before negotiating anything else.
While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2019
An incident like this tanker attack will give hawkish members of the Trump administration and lawmakers — notably, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — ammunition to pursue a military escalation against Iran.
Cotton wasted no time using the attacks on the tankers as justification to continue U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as the Senate debates whether to halt Trump’s emergency provision to push through $8 billion in weapons sales.
“While the attack hasn’t been attributed yet, I think it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t the Omanis. Let’s not be naive about what’s happening in the Middle East,” Cotton said before Pompeo made his announcement.
As Iran’s economy staggers under the weight of sanctions, the ayatollahs are raging against the world. It’s essential we support our Gulf partners during this dangerous time. pic.twitter.com/LVxeRk5gNa
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) June 13, 2019
Bolton is expected to soon turn in evidence to the U.N. Security Council proving that Iran was responsible for the May sabotage attacks on Saudi, U.A.E., and Norwegian vessels.
He was expected to turn in his evidence last week, but has not yet done so, although Pompeo said that he has instructed Jonathan Cohen, acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N., “to raise Iran’s attacks in the U.N. Security Council” on Thursday afternoon.
Where are the crew members of the attacked tankers?
According to reports, there were 44 crew members rescued: Twenty-three from the Front Altair and 21 from the KoKuka Courageous.
Front Altair crew (manned by a mostly Russians and Filipinos, with at least one Georgian) were picked up by a South Korean cargo ship, the Hyundai Dubai, responding to the distress call. They were then handed over to an Iranian vessel believed to have gone to Bandar Abbas, a port city in southern Iran.
But here is where things get really muddled. Iran’s semi-official Mehr News Agency reports that owing to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, its navy sent out rescue ships and helicopters to help the crews.
Here’s how that works: There’s a global search and rescue system that is established and in place around the world. When a distress signal is sent by a ship, nearby rescue coordination centers respond to whatever is needed (rescue, clean up, etc.).
Iranian media reports claim the Iranian navy rescued all 44 crew members. But unnamed U.S. officials tell CBS that the Iranian version isn’t true, that the crew of Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous was rescued by a tugboat, then transferred to the USS Bainbridge.
The network reported, “According to U.S. officials, the crewmen Iran ‘rescued’ were given no choice about boarding an Iranian vessel. At last report, they were still in Iranian hands, so fine line between rescued and detained.” (The mention of being detained was later removed from the piece.)
The Associated Press reported that Iranian television has aired footage of some of the crew sitting on a couch, watching English language television, in the Iranian port of Jask.
ThinkProgress emailed Iran’s Rescue Coordination Center asking for clarification on how it deployed its rescue operations, how many crew members it picked up, if they were indeed, coerced into boarding Iranian vessels, and if they are being detained or are free to leave. We have not yet received a response.