U.S. and Iran Trade Blame for Tanker Attacks

The damage to the Kokuka Courageous and a suspected limpet mine on her hull, June 13 (mage courtesy USS Bainbridge / U.S. Navy)

Published Jun 14, 2019 7:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

Iran and the United States are trading blame for the attack on two product tankers in the Gulf of Oman Thursday, with both sides accusing the other of involvement. 

At about 0600-0700 hours Thursday, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous both suffered hull damage from explosions while in transit in the Gulf of Oman. Both vessels' crews abandoned ship and were rescued by good samaritan vessels. They were later transferred to naval vessels from the United States (for the crew of the Courageous) and Iran (for the crew of the Altair).  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted Thursday that Iran was responsible for the attack, "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." On Friday, President Donald Trump repeated the accusation and warned Iran not to attempt to close the Strait of Hurmuz to shipping. 

For its part, Iran denies involvement, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested the timing of an attack on a Japanese-owned ship during a visit to Tehran from Japanese President Shinzo Abe was a "suspicious" event. Zarif accused hostile foreign governments of plotting to derail diplomatic talks and increase tensions in the region. 

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, an aide to the president of Iran's parliament, accused American and Israeli agents of covert involvement. “The US intelligence services and Mossad are the main suspects of targeting the security of oil exports in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman,” said Abdollahian in a Twitter post Friday. 

Factual accounts of the event differ. U.S. Central Command asserted Thursday that hand-placed limpet mines were the likely source of the initial explosions. In a statement, it said that the crew of the damaged tanker Kokuka Courageous "abandoned their ship after discovering a probable unexploded limpet mine on their hull" after the initial attack. Central Command released a photograph taken by the crew of the destroyer USS Bainbridge showing a "likely mine" attached to the Courageous' hull (imave top), along with aerial video (below) of an Iranian patrol boat allegedly removing the same mine later that day. 

“You know [Iran] did it because you saw the boat,” President Trump said Friday in a call to the hosts of Fox & Friends. “I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it.”
However, on Friday, Japanese shipowner Kokuka Sangyo said that it understands that the Courageous was struck by a flying object. “We received reports that something flew towards the ship,” said Yutaka Katada, the company's president. “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship."

Separately, an American official claimed Friday that Iranian forces attempted to down a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile just prior to the attack Thursday morning. The unnamed official told CNN that the drone had observed Iranian boats approaching the two vessels. CNN did not have access to drone footage or other confirmation of the incident. 

Salvage in process

As of Friday afternoon, the Front Altair was stopped in the Gulf of Oman about 60 nm east of Fujairah, attended by the tugs Aquila and E Two. The Kokuka Courageous is in a stable condition and under tow in the Gulf of Oman, bound for a port of refuge.

SMIT Salvage been appointed as the salvor for both tankers. In a statement, the firm said that the situation aboard the Front Altair is "still worrisome." The crew was able to safely leave the ship and the fire was extinguished yesterday afternoon, and a salvage team and its equipment have been flown in. The salvage operations are being carried out in consultation with the local authorities, including the Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Center (MEMAC).

Ensuring safety for shipping

Front Altair is Norwegian-owned, and the Norwegian Maritime Authority has cautioned its shipping to minimize transit times in Iranian waters. "We look seriously at the situation and ask Norwegian ships in the area to show high care and alertness," said acting maritime director Lars Alvestad in a statement.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has called on all parties to ensure the safe passage of ships and seafarers in the region. “We commend all involved in the prompt intervention and rescue of the 44 seafarers, but we have grave concerns over the safety of the ships transiting in this area,” said ITF Seafarers’ section chair David Heindel. “We also urge the naval forces to extend their protection to all ships transiting the area and call for a political solution to ensure seafarers and ships’ safe passage.”