Trump Downplays Tanker Attacks

Damage to the tanker Kokuka Courageous, Gulf of Oman (U.S. CENTCOM)

Published Jun 18, 2019 9:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an interview Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, describing them to TIME Magazine as "very minor." His assessment differed in tenor from those released previously: U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo has described the attacks as a "blatant assault," and acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan has called them "a threat to international security."

The Trump administration blames Iran for the attacks, but Tehran denies the charge. The two incidents - an attack on four tankers at an anchorage off Fujairah on May 12 and another on two tankers under way on June 13 - come at a sensitive time in relations between Tehran and Washington. Iran says that it is about to surpass the limits on uranium enrichment imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the treaty that led to a near-complete shutdown of the Iranian nuclear program in 2016. The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement last year and reimposed sweeping sanctions on Iran's economy, notably its oil exports, which fund a sizeable portion of Tehran's government budget.

The UK swiftly followed suit in attributing the attacks to Iran, and on Tuesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that there is "strong evidence" that Iran was responsble for the attack. Hoever, not all are convinced. The EU's foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, has called on EU member states to avoid jumping to conclusions about whether Iran might be responsible and to exercise "maximum restraint and wisdom." Japan has also declined to assign blame so far, even though one of the tankers involved is Japanese-owned. The UAE, a regional opponent of Tehran, has remained carefully circumspect about assigning blame, saying only that a "state actor" carried out the attacks. 

Russia, for its part, has accused the U.S. of attempting to "provoke war" by ramping up the American military presence in the Middle East. The Pentagon announced Monday that it is sending an additional 1,000 troops to the region in response to the alleged Iranian threat. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted Tuesday that the troop deployment is an "unthinking and reckless pumping up of tensions in an explosive region," part of a pattern that "cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war."

When asked Monday whether he was planning for a military action against Iran, President Trump said that that was not currently under consideration. "I wouldn't say that. I can't say that at all," he said - though he left all options open if Iran should move towards developing a nuclear weapon. In the runup to the 2016 election, Trump said that he opposed the American military intervention in Iraq, and as president he has moved to reduce troop levels in Syria and Afghanistan.