An attack Thursday on two international oil tankers off the Iranian coast, which left one ship billowing black smoke and forced crews of both to abandon ship, was the work of Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
"This is only the latest in a series of attacks instigated by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogates against American and allied interests," Pompeo said.
No nation or group claimed responsibility for the attack, the second on oil tankers in the region in a month.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei expressed "concern and sorrow" over the incident, saying other nations would benefit from instability in the region.
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet said it received two distress calls and sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge to the scene.
"Twenty-one mariners from the M/V Kokuka Courageous, who abandoned ship, were rescued and are currently aboard Bainbridge," the Navy said in a statement.
"Today's attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce," Capt. Bill Urban, lead spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a Thursday night statement. "The U.S. and the international community, stand ready to defend our interests, including the freedom of navigation."
Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency initially claimed its nation's search-and-rescue teams picked up the 21 sailors aboard the Kokuka Courageous and the 23 from the Front Altair and evacuated them to the nearby Iranian port of Jask. Iranian TV later aired video of some sailors gathered in a room watching TV.
Frontline, the firm that operates the Front Altair, said an explosion caused the fire. Its crew of 23 was safely evacuated to the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel, it said.
BSM Ship Management said the Kokuka Courageous sustained hull damage.
Japan’s Trade Ministry said the vessels had “Japan-related cargo.” The incident took place as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up a visit to Tehran aimed at improving relations between Iran and the United States.
Pompeo said Iranian officials refused Abe's overtures, then attacked ships carrying goods.
Jamal Abdi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, urged Iran, the United States and other nations to show restraint while the investigation unfolds.
"The fact that the sabotage occurred amid Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Iran underscores that the likely motive of the attackers is to prevent any easing of tensions and block off exit ramps to war," Abdi said.
James Piazza, a Penn State political science professor specializing in the Islamic world, told USA TODAY that although hard-line elements in Iran could be involved, Iran-allied rebels in Yemen are also among suspects.
"I think what the alleged attacks underscore is the vulnerability of petroleum resources in the Gulf and, by extension, global economic stability," Piazza said.
Oil prices reacted immediately – benchmark Brent crude spiked more than $3, to more than $62 a barrel, as word of the attack spread. The price began to go down later in the day.
Last year, President Donald Trump withdrew from an accord between Iran and world powers aimed at limiting Tehran's nuclear capabilities. The White House has repeatedly claimed that Iran threatens American forces and facilities in the Middle East. Last month, Trump dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the region.
BSM Ship Management, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said it launched a "full-scale emergency response following a security incident." One crew member was slightly injured, the company said.
The Courageous, stranded 16 miles off the coast of Iran and 80 off the United Arab Emirates, was in no danger of sinking, BSM said.
Taiwan's state oil refiner CPC chartered the Front Altair, which carried 75,000 tons of the petrochemical naphtha, when it was "suspected of being hit by a torpedo," Wu I-Fang, CPC's petrochemical business division CEO, told Reuters news agency.
The attack Thursday drew parallels to a similar attack last month off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia said in May that four oil tankers were sabotaged, which caused "significant damage" to the vessels. One of the ships was en route to pick up Saudi oil to take to the USA.
“It's going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that," Trump said after that incident. "They're not going to be happy."
An investigation blamed explosive sea mines, and Saudi Arabia and the United States blamed Iran. Iran denied involvement, although Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen have launched missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Contributing: The Associated Press
'No preconditions': Pompeo says US prepared to talk to Iran with 'no preconditions'
Iranian foreign minister: US 'cannot expect to stay safe' because of 'economic war'
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pompeo: Iran responsible for attack on oil tankers in Gulf of Oman