That’s a bad look for Iran.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers traveling through a vital Middle Eastern waterway, causing more than 40 crew members to abandon their ship. The problem was that he provided no specific evidence, leading some skeptics to question whether to believe the Trump administration’s claim.
But late Thursday night, the US military put out some information that looks very damning for Iran.
US Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, released a grainy black-and-white video and two pictures. The video purports to show an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the damaged tankers, the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous, and the photos detail the section of the ship where the explosion occurred and the location of the malfunctioning mine.
Limpet mines, which are also believed to have been used in similar attacks in May, are explosive sea mines that can be attached to the hull of a ship using magnets. Iran has a substantial arsenal of sophisticated naval mines as well as a long history of using these weapons to attack oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, where Thursday’s attacks took place — most notably during the Iran-Iraq tanker wars in the 1980s.
CENTCOM, as the American military organization is known, also released a detailed timeline of Thursday’s events. Two moments in particular stand out.
At around 8:09 am local time, a US military aircraft observed boats belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) near the Marshall Islands-flagged Front Altair, the other damaged oil tanker. The IRGC is Tehran’s hugely influential security and military organization responsible for the protection and survival of the regime.
And at 4:10 pm local time, an IRGC patrol boat was seen removing the unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous — an event the whole world can see now in the released video.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly denied any involvement in Thursday’s attacks. But unless America’s military and civilian officials have purposely misrepresented intelligence, it seems like Iran had something to do with them.
President Donald Trump surely thinks so. “Iran did do it, and you know they did do it because you saw the boat,” he said Friday morning on Fox & Friends. “They didn’t want the evidence left behind. . . . It was them that did it.”
US-Iran tensions just keep getting higher. Thursday’s attacks won’t help.
The Trump administration has so far tried to quash any worries that a war with Iran is imminent.
“Today’s attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce,” Capt. Bill Urban, a CENTCOM spokesperson, said in a Thursday statement. “The United States has no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. However, we will defend our interests.”
“Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table at the right time,” Pompeo told reporters earlier that day. He added that Iran was lashing out to get the US’s “successful maximum pressure campaign lifted.”
That “maximum pressure campaign” includes crippling economic sanctions, which the Trump administration imposed on Iran last year after the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
That’s why US-Iran tensions are already high — but events over the past two months have only sent them higher.
In early May, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of threats from Iran.
The move, Bolton said, was meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
Iran apparently intended to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, or even use drones against Americans in a key waterway near Yemen. There was also information that Iran put cruise missiles on ships, heightening fears that it might attack US Navy vessels with them.
It didn’t take too long for there to be an incident.
About a week after Bolton’s warning, four oil tankers were damaged near the Strait of Hormuz. Two of them belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates, both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.)
United Nations ambassadors from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Norway said last week that the damages came after a country used divers to place mines on the large ships. The diplomats didn’t specifically name Iran as the culprit, but the US had already blamed Tehran for the sabotage — a charge Iran denies.
Now, citing the Thursday attacks, the US basically argues that Iran is engaged in a pattern of attacking oil tankers shipping energy around the world. If that’s the case, and Tehran’s behavior doesn’t stop soon, it’s possible the Trump administration could change course and consider a military response.