(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said Iran was responsible for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf this week, and he vowed that the key shipping lane of the Strait of Hormuz won’t be closed.
“Iran did do it, and you know they did it,” Trump said Friday during a phone interview with Fox News. “You saw the boat at night,” he said.
The president’s comments follow American officials’ release of images they said show that Iran was involved in an attack on an oil tanker near the entrance to the Persian Gulf on Thursday, one of two incidents that have raised tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. Iranian officials have rejected the accusation, and others have questioned the evidence.
The prospects of a conflict have heightened since the administration tightened its sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early May, following Trump’s decision a year ago to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
Senior Trump administration officials have said the U.S. is considering a number of responses to the attacks, including the possibility of providing naval escorts to commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. An American military response hasn’t been ruled out, they said, and all options are on the table.
Asked whether the U.S. will send more forces to the region, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters Friday that “we obviously need to make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate.” He said the attacks on shipping will help “develop international consensus” on action to constrain Iran.
But Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of the leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination to run against Trump, said he was concerned the attacks would be used by the administration as grounds to go to war against Iran.
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“Attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman are unacceptable and must be fully investigated,” Sanders said. “But this incident must not be used as a pretext for a war with Iran, a war which would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States, Iran, the region and the world.”
Debate also continued about evidence that the U.S. says showed Iran was behind the tanker attacks.
U.S. Central Command released a time line of the incident along with video and photographs showing a boat alongside the hull of a larger vessel with a hole in its side. The military said the video showed Iranian forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from from the vessel. Limpet mines are usually attached to a target by magnet.
But in remarks to Japanese media, the president of the company that owns the ship said there’s “zero chance” the vessel was damaged by a mine or torpedo. “A mine doesn’t damage a ship above sea level," said Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo, the owner and operator of the vessel. “We aren’t sure exactly what hit, but it was something flying toward the ship,” he said.
The video was the first evidence publicly put forward by the U.S. to support its claim -- announced earlier on Thursday by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo -- that Iran was culpable.
“The United States will defend its forces, interests and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability,” Pompeo said, noting that Iran had previously threatened to curtail oil transport in the Strait of Hormuz.
“They’re not going to be closing it,” Trump said in the interview on Friday.
While officials in the Trump administration have said Iran continues to back terrorists and threaten U.S. interests throughout the Middle East, the president asserted in the interview that his hard line has forced Iran to modify its behavior. “They’ve changed a lot since I’ve been president,” he said, and “they haven’t screamed ‘Death to America’ lately.”
Iranian officials denied any involvement in the tanker attacks, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggesting that Iran’s enemies may have been behind them and reiterating calls for a regional dialogue. In a tweet on Friday he said, “Unilateral US actions—incl. its #EconomicTerrorism on Iran—are solely responsible for insecurity & renewed tension in our region.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Friday for an independent investigation of the tanker attacks, telling reporters, “It is very important to know the truth, and it is very important that responsibilities are clarified.” But the U.K.’s government said in a statement that it’s “almost certain” that Iran was behind the attacks because no other state or non-state actor could plausibly have carried them out.
Iranian forces were probably responsible for using anti-ship missiles, according to a report seen by Bloomberg News from DNK, the insurer of one of the ships. The Norwegian insurer has raised its assessment on the threat to tankers in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and North Western Gulf of Oman to high following the incident, it said in the report.
“There hasn’t been hard evidence provided by the U.S. administration but it fits into a pattern of Iranian behavior,” Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group, said of the tanker attacks in an interview Friday.
With the U.S. sending warnings not to harms its interests and assets, he said, “We are getting a response from Iran where they are targeting interests of U.S. allies in the region with something that doesn’t directly point to them but it will be interpreted as them.”
The attacks occurred as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran meeting officials in what was seen as an effort to help ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Pompeo said the attack on a ship owned by a Japanese company was tantamount to Iran insulting Japan as Abe was trying to seek peace, although the ship’s owner said an attacker wouldn’t have known that because it was flying under a Panamanian flag.
Trump spoke with Abe on Friday, discussing issues including Abe’s “recent travel to Iran and the circumstances surrounding the attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman,” according to a White House statement. It said Trump thanked Abe “for his effort to facilitate communication with Iran.”
The episode in the Persian Gulf came a day after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at a Saudi airport, wounding 26 people.
(Updates with Shanahan, Senator Sanders starting in sixth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Kathleen Hunter, Verity Ratcliffe, David Wainer and Tim Ross.
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