Update: Secretary of State Pompeo says Iran is responsible for the Gulf attack, citing US intelligence.
The United States Navy is assisting the crews of two oil tanker ships in the Gulf of Oman today that suffered catastrophic damages from explosions. Early reports suggest at least one of the vessels was struck by a torpedo.
The attacks occurred as the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe was concluding meetings in an effort to cool escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. One of the two ships, the Kokuka Courageous was struck at least twice in three hours. The ship is Japanese-owned and carried an international crew.
That ship was carrying methanol but did not ignite. Crew members were evacuated onto the USS Bainbridge missile destroyer that was in the area. US forces also deployed a P-8 Poisedon surveillance aircraft to search the sea for possible submarine activity.
The Norwegian-owned tanker Front Altair was not so lucky. Video and images show the tanker burning midship, with charring and smoke damage along the port side, aft to beyond the pilothouse. The tanker was carrying Naptha, a highly flammable petrochemical.
The crew was rescued by an Iranian warship that was nearby when the attacks happened. The crew has been transported to an Iranian port city.
The attacks are likely to increase already hostile negotiations between the US and leaders of Iran should it be confirmed the Islamic Republic, a US-recognized sponsor of global terrorism, participated in or carried out the attacks.
Iran has denied responsibility for the attack. US intelligence, however, has already implicated Iran in an attack on four tanker ships last month. The ships suffered damages from what was likely attacks using limpet mines, explosives attached to the hull of a ship with magnets.
Tensions between the US and Iran have been escalating for months. President Donald Trump removed the US from an agreement signed under his predecessor that scaled back sanctions against Iran in exchange for more transparency about the Middle Eastern nation’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration wants greater international transparency over nuclear activities and Iranian ballistic missile programs, as well as an end to Iranian-sponsored terrorist activity.
Forcing Iran to scale back efforts to arm rebel fighters in and around the Middle East region and prevent the spread of terrorism while also preventing the spread of nuclear weapons into one of the worlds most volatile regions has been a key foreign policy goal of the Trump administration.
In the effort to force Iran to make a deal, the US is aiming to stop all sales of crude oil from Iran.
The US government ended waivers for allied nations to continue purchasing oil from Iran in April. Japan, China, Turkey, and several other nations are no longer allowed to buy oil from Iran or will face US sanctions.
Japan ships about 80 percent of its oil supplies through the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. Only about three percent of Japan’s crude purchases came from Iran before the US pulled waivers last month.
The US has deployed several naval battle groups to the Gulf in anticipation of increasing conflict.