ISTANBUL - Iran on Friday dismissed U.S. claims that its forces attacked two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, calling the allegations "alarming" and accusing the Trump administration of "economic terrorism" and actively working to sabotage diplomacy in the region.
The comments from Iranian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, came just hours after the U.S. Central Command released a video and timeline suggesting that U.S. military assets observed Iranian vessels returning to one of the tankers to retrieve an unexploded mine.
"At 4:10 p.m. local time an IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat approached the M/T Kokuka Courageous and was observed and recorded removing the unexploded limpet mine" from the Courageous, said Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman.
The two tankers, which carried petrochemicals from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Gulf of Oman, were targeted early Thursday in what observers said marked a serious escalation in the strategic waterway, through which one-fifth of the world's oil passes. It connects energy supplies from Arab nations in the gulf, as well as Iran, to consumers around the globe.
Senior U.S. officials showed photographs to reporters of the damaged tanker Kokuka Courageous with what the Navy identified as a suspected magnetic mine attached to its hull. The unexploded weapon was probably applied by hand from an Iranian fast boat, one official said, and is thought to be the same kind of weapon used to blow a hole elsewhere in the same tanker and to do more-serious damage to the other ship that was targeted, the Front Altair, two officials said.
The officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because many elements of the investigation remain secret, said the type and timing of the attacks bear Iranian hallmarks. But U.S. officials could not yet say with certainty where the mines were manufactured or exactly how they were laid.
"There's not too many ways in which this can be done," one official said. "Very few that don't involve an individual physically placing it on the ship."
On his Twitter account Friday, Zarif said that the United States "immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran - [without] a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence."
He pointed to the attack's timing - as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran - as evidence that the United States is engaged in "sabotage diplomacy."
The Courageous is a Japanese-owned vessel. A U.S. defense official said the USS Bainbridge, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that was in the area, took on board 21 crew members from the ship.
The accusation against Iran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said, is "not only not funny . . . but alarming and worrisome," Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"The responsibility for the security of the Strait of Hormuz lies with the Islamic Republic of Iran," Mousavi said. He added that the Iranian navy had "rescued" 23 crew members from the Front Altair, a Norway-owned ship, "as soon as possible."
The ship's crew members - 11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian - were transferred to an Iranian navy ship, then taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
U.S. officials said several nations are consulting about how to respond. One option may be to provide military escorts for commercial tankers moving through the Strait of Hormuz, one official said, although no decision has been made.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran Thursday for the "blatant assault" on the vessels and said the United States would defend itself and its allies against Iranian aggression in the region. But he provided no evidence that the explosions were the work of Iranian forces.
Pompeo said the U.S. assessment of Iranian involvement is based on intelligence, the type of weapons used and the level of expertise needed, and that no Iranian-backed militia in the region has the resources or proficiency to pull off such a sophisticated operation.
The attacks are part of Iran's response to tightening U.S. sanctions, one official said. He described the Iranian view this way: "If we can't ship oil, no one can."